Foresters: Firefighting efforts hampered by federal rules
SALEM ' Federal firefighting policies contributed to the worst fire season in Oregon's history last summer, two state foresters told the Senate Water and Land Use Committee.
More forestland burned in Oregon than in any other state, with Southern Oregon's Biscuit fire the most costly in the nation's history.
Testifying at the informational hearing Wednesday were Ray Woo, acting state forester, and Charlie Stone, assistant forester for protection and forest practices, both of the Oregon Department of Forestry.
The change in federal policies was a disaster, in my opinion, agreed Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, the committee chairman. Also sharply critical was Sen. Jason Atkinson, R-Jacksonville, who contended the Biscuit fire could have been put out by one tanker plane when it was still small.
But the tanker was sent on to a fire in the Marble Mountain Wilderness in Northern California instead, so the Biscuit fire grew and grew, Atkinson said.
Woo and Stone pointed out that conditions in 2002 were ripe for major blazes. The fire season started earlier, temperatures were unseasonably hot by early July, dry lightning storms were more frequent, and the fuel load, particularly in Southern Oregon, was heavy and tinder-dry.
Lightning on July 13 touched off the Biscuit fire, which grew to nearly 500,000 acres in southwestern Oregon before it was extinguished at a cost of &
Stone outlined some of the federal practices that caused delays in attacking fires. They included requiring one supervisor for each bulldozer and helicopter brought in to fight the fires; requiring eight hours of rest for crews after each 16-hour shift; reluctance by federal forest agencies to fight blazes at night; and requiring that each crew get a lengthy briefing before going on a fire.
The latter practice, Ferrioli noted, often kept firefighters off a blaze during the early morning hours, when moisture and no wind created optimum conditions for control.
The national Forest Service practices ' Woo and Stone hesitated to call them written regulations ' stem from the criticism federal fire agencies have received because of fatalities resulting, in part, from poor management decisions on the Thirty-mile fire in Central Washington, the disastrous 1994 Storm King fire in Colorado, and a poor record of aviation safety.
Those fatalities prompted scrutiny of the Forest Service by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and resulted in more restrictive policies that delayed deployment on fires.
The Forest Service wasn't aggressive enough when the fires were small, said Woo.
Stone said ODF is working both regionally and nationally to persuade the Forest Service to moderate some of its policies.
The regional forester and the state director of the Bureau of Land Management recognize there is a problem, Woo said.
Added Stone, Now we are working at every level to get some changes. I am confident many things are going to change, but the pace is slow.
Don Jepsen is a free-lance writer living in Salem.