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On a mission

CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK — Firefighters scratching a line around the Bybee Creek fire burning in Crater Lake National Park happened upon an old and abandoned car far from any roadway.

The crews noted its GPS coordinates, flagged it so it would be avoided like the rare Mount Mazama Collomia plants firefighters happen upon, and they notified the parks' cultural resources specialist, who is part of the team fighting this roughly 1,200-acre fire.

"Let's see if it has a story behind it," says Adrienne Freeman, a National Park Service public information officer working the fire. "It could be part of that shared culture we have in our parks."

Had it been discovered on a wildfire on Bureau of Land Management land fought by the Oregon Department of Forestry, a bulldozer cutting a fire line might simply have swerved around it.

When it comes to fighting wildfires in Southern Oregon, the tactics employed by crews on the ground and in the air can vary widely depending upon the government agency entrusted with protecting those lands and the diverse missions they follow.

From the equipment used on the ground to the type of retardant, if any, dropped from the air, the approaches to attacking wildfires are driven mainly by the diverse missions governing how lands are managed.

They range from the Park Service, which is charged with protecting the natural and cultural resources of park land, to the "every acre has value" mantra of ODF, which is charged with protecting private, state and BLM lands, including rural ranchettes sprinkled among industrial timber stands.

"Our mission in all cases is to put every fire out as fast as possible and keep them as small as possible," ODF Fire Information Officer Brian Ballou says. "We throw everything at it as soon as possible. It's very different than the Park Service."

And somewhere in the middle lies the U.S. Forest Service, whose policies include protecting forest health and diversity, as well as productivity — a component not generally part of the Park Service lexicon.

"You don't treat every fire the same," says Eric Hensel, fire staff officer for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. "It depends upon where it's burning, the fuels, weather, topography, values at risk and high-value assets that could be threatened.

"The Forest Service might take more aggressive action to protect an area planned for a timber sale," Hensel says. "The Park Service doesn't have timber sales."

The various agencies all place the lives of the public and their firefighters at the top of the priority list, and they address wildfires in federally designated wilderness areas based on wilderness rules toward wildfires, regardless of which agency is entrusted with those lands.

Beyond that, the nuances of fighting these blazes can differ greatly.

At Crater Lake, fire crews occasionally have let lightning-ignited fires burn because lightning is a natural occurrence and is part of the natural processes there, Freeman says.

The Bybee Creek fire, however, was caused by humans and ignited near the intersection of the Pacific Crest and Lighting Spring trails, and is burning in rugged terrain that includes areas burned by a wildfire a decade ago.

An incident team was assigned to the fire, and a direct-attack plan was chosen instead of the laissez-faire approach, based on very dry conditions and it being one of the busiest times of year for Oregon's only national park.

"This is aggressive because of the start, because of the conditions and because of the visitors here," Freeman says. "Full suppression is the right choice for this fire."

That means hand crews cleared portions of old fire lines and scratched in new ones well around the fire with the intent that it not grow outside those boundaries. No bulldozers were used, though they could be, but only with the approval of park Superintendent Craig Ackerman.

Helicopters and airplanes dropped water from the sky, and some "fugitive" retardant was used early on because it is more environmentally sensitive than standard retardant and breaks down more quickly, Freeman says.

Cultural sites are mapped and the areas are avoided, as are sensitive plants such as Mount Mazama Collomia, a rare type of phlox native to the Crater Lake area that is also flagged and monitored within the fire area. It's a fire-adapted plant, so Park Service officials aren't worried about it burning but are concerned about the impacts of ground disturbance, Freeman says.

All trees more than 30 inches in diameter at breast height must be pre-approved for cutting, with their numbers and locations logged and reported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of northern spotted owl habitat monitoring, Freeman says.

"Our goal is to protect the ecosystem, and we're also protecting the processes that make things work," Freeman says.

The vast majority of ODF fires are at lower elevations and often around residences, so ignitions are attacked heavily regardless of whether they are natural or human-caused.

"We don't have many lands like national parks," Ballou says. "We jump on them quickly, get them out fast and keep them small."

ODF can use the lighter-touch fire retardant, but crews say they prefer the standard red retardant because it is more effective on the wildland grass, brush and wood where they fight fires, Ballou says.

The use of bulldozers requires no sign-off, nor does the felling of larger trees.

"Usually, with fire, we're empowered to make all the decisions we need to make to stop the fire and reduce any other damage," Ballou says. "Generally, our objectives are different." 

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Firefighters prepare for a burnout Thursday at the Bybee Creek fire southwest of Crater Lake. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
The Bybee Creek fire burns Thursday southwest of Crater Lake. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch