Concerns about smoke buildup in Northern California led to the decision that sent wildland firefighters into the Trinity Alps Wilderness, where seven Southern Oregon men died in a helicopter crash Aug. 5.
Firefighters went into the wilderness after a regional forester decided to suppress all fires that were burning, including those in remote areas where lives and property were not at risk. Fire managers also were worried that the Buckhorn fire could close the highway linking Redding to the coast, said Mike Odle, a spokesman for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
"Smoke was a huge issue," Odle said, noting that air quality in the region was poor or unhealthy during 24 of July's 31 days. Some of that smoke drifted north across the Siskiyou Mountains and settled around Medford and across the Rogue Valley, prompting air pollution alerts here, too.
The deaths have drawn attention to U.S. Forest Service policies for fighting fires in backcountry areas where human lives and property are not an issue. Forest managers say they have an elaborate set of policies and plans for managing fires as they emerge. Critics say they are too quick to go into all-out suppression mode, putting lives at risk and creating excessive resource damage.
"People don't like smoke," said Timothy Ingalsbee, director of Eugene-based Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. "People don't like firefighters dead in action, either."
FUSEE supports the use of fire as a forest management tool and advocates letting fires burn to improve forest health when homes, lives and property are not threatened. Ingalsbee, a former firefighter who earned a doctorate in environmental sociology, said the deaths weren't the result of any one specific action, but rather a reflection of the Forest Service's "inaction down the line and over the years" on fire planning.
The Buckhorn fire, where the helicopter crashed, had grown to more than 22,000 acres by Wednesday and was still just 27 percent contained.
Forest Service policy allows some fires to burn under a doctrine known as "wildland fire use" (commonly known as "let it burn") if flames from a natural cause such as lightning will accomplish management goals such as reducing fuel levels on the forest floor or thinning young trees.
Randy Moore, the regional forester, directed local foresters to stop wildland fire use on July 9. Lightning had kindled about 3,000 fires across California, and foresters wanted to get them under control as soon as possible, said Janice Gauthier, director of public affairs for the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Region, which includes all of California.
Gauthier said 80 fires were still burning three weeks later, but wildland fire use was still not allowed.
"Decisions were made to actively suppress the Iron Complex fires" (which included the Buckhorn fire) after fires that threatened Santa Barbara and Big Sur were contained, she said.
The firefighters who died had been building "hand line" — using hand tools to scratch a strip of bare soil across the forest floor that flames cannot cross. They had been camped in the area for several days and were being airlifted out when the helicopter went down.
Gauthier said it would be inappropriate to "connect any dots between the circumstances of the helicopter accident and conditions of the fire."
"We'll have to wait and see the (National Transportation Safety Board) report," she said.
Ingalsbee said it was a political decision to shut down all opportunities to let some fires burn naturally.
"Conditions in many of the Northern California fire areas were ideal for wildland fire use," he said. "Later on, when assessments (of the fires) are done, I think we'll find some great fuel reductions were done."
Smoke, however, is an inevitable product of fire.
Shasta-Trinity foresters went to an all-suppression mode on the Iron Complex fires because the forest had not implemented wildland fire use as part of its overall management plan, said Odle, the forest spokesman. He said air-quality issues and the fire's potential for rapid growth probably would have prompted foresters to suppress it even if they had adopted a policy of wildland fire use.
Oregon's national forests are part of Region 6, the Pacific Northwest Region. Fires in wilderness may be left to burn or suppressed, depending on where they are burning and where they're headed, said Louisa Evers, a fire ecologist at the regional office in Portland.
"Depending on where a fire is, a whole lot of situational circumstances" determine how foresters will respond, Evers said. Some fires may be monitored by a lookout or someone in an aircraft. For others, ground crews may be dispatched.
"We use lots of decision criteria," she said, "and it's often hard to keep track of all of them, especially when you have a lot of starts going on.
"Every fire is different," Evers said. "What we do may change."
Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail email@example.com.