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Numbers don't lie: The Biscuit fire was huge

Covering nearly half a million acres, the Biscuit fire was the largest wildfire in Oregon in more than a century.

Sparked by a July 13 lightning storm in 2002, the Biscuit was the largest and most expensive wildfire in the nation that year, with a price tag of more than $154.8 million for suppression and rehabilitation projects.

More than 6,000 wildland firefighters were mustered to fight the stubborn fire, which continued into November. Most were from the United States, but there were also crews from Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Then-President George W. Bush visited the region and flew over the fire, one of several burning at the time. On the ground, he went to the Squires Peak fire that had burned about 6,000 acres in the Applegate Valley before it was snuffed out.

The fire drew national attention not only for its size but for the heated debate over salvage logging after the flames died away. The debate that continued for years centered on whether salvage logging was detrimental to the environment of the area burned.

The fire started on remote Biscuit Hill a dozen miles west of O'Brien. For the first few weeks, it was largely overlooked while crews concentrated on the Florence fire burning in the Florence Creek area in the northern portion of the forest. Once the Biscuit overcame the smaller Florence fire, the name stuck.

Like all fires, the Biscuit burned in a mosaic pattern. A satellite map revealed that 19.7 percent of the area — 100,000 acres — within the perimeter of the fire was unburned, according to a U.S. Forest Service analysis issued shortly after the fire. Another 41 percent burned at low intensity, leaving green trees standing while clearing underbrush.

The satellite image also showed that 22.6 percent burned at moderate intensity, killing the trees but not consuming their needles. The remainder — 15.7 percent — burned at a high intensity, leaving little more than ash and charcoal.

While huge, the fire was not the largest in state history. That notoriety goes to the 988,000-acre Silverton fire of 1865, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Other large fires burning in Oregon before it became a state in 1859 included the 480,000-acre Yaquina fire in 1853, the 800,000-acre Siletz fire in 1849 and the 290,000-acre Nestucca fire in 1848. Those fires, all on the Oregon Coast, occurred before wildfire suppression was a routine reaction.

Since statehood and before the Biscuit, the largest fire in Western Oregon during the 20th century was the 240,000-acre Tillamook burn in 1933. That area burned repeatedly in subsequent fires, including the 1939 Saddle Mountain fire, which blackened 190,000 acres, and the 1945 Wilson River Salmonberry fire, which burned 180,000 acres.

The largest wildfire in southwestern Oregon before the Biscuit was the 1987 Silver fire, which burned nearly 100,000 acres. Half of that fire was within the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest's Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area, an area burned by the Biscuit.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.