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Counties consider no-confidence vote on Forest Service

After a summer of raging wildfires and smoke, some Oregon counties are considering whether to pass no-confidence resolutions targeting the U.S. Forest Service.

Jackson County commissioners discussed the idea during a work session this morning but said they wanted to gather more information before joining in.

Commissioners in neighboring Josephine County have drafted a no-confidence resolution, saying the Forest Service's management practices were substantial contributing factors in the spread of the Chetco Bar fire. The 191,125-acre fire that started in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area threatened Cave Junction on its eastern flank and the coastal town of Brookings on its western flank.

Josephine County commissioners have criticized the Forest Service's initial attack practices and say logging cutbacks have led to overgrown forests and tinderbox conditions.

Forest Service officials contend they fought the Chetco Bar fire aggressively from the start, but were hampered by dangerous conditions on the ground that put firefighters' lives in jeopardy.

Adding in acreage from other fires, 16 percent of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest land base burned this year, according to Forest Service officials.

Jackson County Commissioner Colleen Roberts asked her fellow commissioners to discuss the issue of firefighting and forest management after state Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr. circulated a draft letter to other local leaders faulting Forest Service management. His letter is addressed to the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which includes the Forest Service.

"Heavy fuel loads contributed to the complexity of the Chetco Bar fire," Roberts said. "Wildfires are getting more intense."

She said the Forest Service isn't harvesting enough timber to reduce fuel loads in the woods, and isn't aggressive enough in fighting fires in wilderness areas and on other specially designated lands.

"I don't have confidence in the U.S. Forest Service's fire management policies," Roberts said.

Commissioner Bob Strosser said the Forest Service hasn't done enough to reduce fuels.

Commissioner Rick Dyer said Jackson County is compiling information on the negative impacts this summer's wildfire season had on locals. He said he wants that data in hand so commissioners can make a stronger, fact-based case if they decide to take some type of stand on the issue.

"I'm not necessarily ready to jump on the band wagon with what Josephine County did," Dyer said.

The debate continues to rage about what is causing wildfires and heavy smoke.

Some say summer fires are natural and part of living in the West. Others say global warming is lengthening fire seasons and drying out forests. Many agree fuel loads are too high in forests but disagree about whether traditional logging or thinning of small trees and brush is the best approach.

Meanwhile, officials have given detailed accounts of the fight against the Chetco Bar fire.

On July 12 —  the day the fire was reported — and the next day, firefighters rappelled in by helicopter but found logs and flaming debris rolling downhill, brush so thick they had to cut paths to move and slopes covered in slippery leaves. While they fought the fire, helicopters dumped 17,280 gallons of water on the first day alone, according to public briefings officials from multiple agencies gave early this month and a timeline.

The detailed timeline is available online at http://arcg.is/2fxCsAZ.

Crew bosses decided against dropping in more firefighters. Ground firefighters, their protective clothing in tatters, were forced to pull back after 24 hours of direct suppression efforts. Firefighters then began working on fire lines in an effort to help contain the fire, the agencies said.

On Aug. 15, the fire was at 5,422 acres and so-called "Chetco Effect" winds surfaced for the first time. Unlike cool, moist winds along the coast, the Chetco Effect produces warm, dry winds that blow from inland mountains toward the Pacific Ocean.

Crews continued to construct fire lines and remove understory fuels, snags and vegetation along roadways and natural barriers as winds intensified, according to the timeline.

Air tankers dropped thousands of gallons of retardant Aug. 17, but heavy smoke later limited air attacks. On Aug. 22, the rapidly growing fire had reached 99,944 acres, the timeline said.

Chetco Effect winds helped fan the flames, causing the fire to make a run through heavy timber toward Brookings. On the Cave Junction side, the fire spread through heavy regrowth of brush and standing dead trees left behind by the Biscuit fire that burned nearly 500,000 acres in 2002, agency officials told the public in a September briefing in Cave Junction.

At the height of the battle against the blaze, more than 1,600 people fought the Chetco Bar fire, which was eventually split into east and west management zones.

— Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.