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Black bears' visits to firefighters for food mean future trouble

Black bears escaping flames from Southern Oregon's massive Biscuit fire are becoming nuisances to firefighters, and biologists fear these encounters eventually could cause problems for area residents once the fire is out.

Bears regularly are hanging around fire crews, gobbling up leftover lunches and drinking water from the large orange tanks that crews use to mop up scorched areas. There was also at least one report of a firefighter feeding portions of his lunch to a black bear, and another bear sat on a truck trailer for several minutes despite efforts to shoo it away.

These bears are looking for a free handout of food, said biologist Mark Vargas of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. And that can definitely create some problems, some conflicts, down the line.

Once bears associate humans with food, these normally reclusive omnivores can begin seeking out people or residences in search of easy meals.

Many of these bears have lived in seclusion in the Siskiyou National Forest's Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area, so associating tasty sandwiches and cool water with people is a dangerous lesson for them to learn.

Once they've developed that attraction, it'll be virtually impossible, a nightmare, to get rid of them, said John Thiebes, another ODFW biologist.

And the stakes are high ' for residents and the bruins. ODFW policy is to kill damage-causing bears because trapping and relocating them just pushes the problem from one area to another, Thiebes said.

As the saying goes, a fed bear is a dead bear, and we don't want to see that, Thiebes said. The important thing is not to acclimate these bears to humans.

During daily fire briefings, members of the Siskiyou National Forest this week began imploring firefighters not to leave any food behind. Siskiyou forest biologist Bill Blackwell said he expects to send a memo to all the Biscuit fire's 3,221 firefighters about the problem.

There's not a lot we can do about the water issue, Blackwell said Thursday. But there are some things we can do about the food issue.

The 500,068-acre Biscuit fire, which was ignited by lightning July 13, is the country's largest and, with suppression costs so far at &

36;115.6 million, its most expensive.

The fire remained 90 percent contained Thursday, but low humidity and gusty winds forced fire managers to move their expected full containment date from Saturday until Sept. 4.

The fire area encompasses about 781 square miles. Biologists estimate there are as many as one bear per square mile in southwestern Oregon forests.

Most of the bears likely are taking advantage of the patches of green, unburned forestlands within the fire's massive boundaries, Vargas said. But many will be pushed toward remote settlements.

There are potentially dozens, hundreds, of bears that are displaced by the fire, Vargas said.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail