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'It's too steep, too dangerous'

A lightning storm at the end of last June gave birth to a small fire on a slope above the Chetco River in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. After smoldering a few weeks — perhaps in a dead tree trunk — the fire grew into a half-acre blaze that was noticed July 12 by a commercial airline pilot.

"Within 15 minutes of the initial report, the decision was made to fully suppress the fire," said Craig Trulock, Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest deputy supervisor.

Ninety minutes later, four firefighters rappelled out of a helicopter to tackle the wildfire, landing on a ridge nearby to avoid the burning logs and other flaming debris rolling downhill. On that first day, helicopters dumped 54 bucket loads of water on the fire.

The next day, additional rappellers dropped in to help tame the now 10-acre Chetco Bar fire, but those firefighters found "staying upright a challenge."

“At one point, I remember it taking me 30 minutes to move about 20 feet," said a senior firefighter in a report titled "Timeline of the Chetco Bar fire," which was recently released by RRSNF (http://arcg.is/2fxCsAZ).

"I was having to cut away brush to clear a narrow path. I kept falling and basically had to belly crawl across the slope. The extremely steep slopes covered in madrone and tan oak leaves made it very difficult to walk, especially downhill, because of how slippery the ground cover was. I kept thinking to myself, ‘It’s too steep, too dangerous in here.' ”

Two additional crew bosses flying over the landscape to assess whether to drop another 40 firefighters into the mix declined the assignment for safety reasons — and after 24 hours of attempted direct suppression tactics, with their clothing in "tatters," the firefighters already on the ground were forced to pull back.

"Those firefighters did a fabulous job in their initial attack," said forest Supervisor Rob MacWhorter. "Based on terrain, fire behavior and weather conditions, they simply made the right decisions around risk management."

Last week, in a series of four public meetings in the towns most affected by the Chetco Bar fire (Brookings, Gold Beach, Agness and Cave Junction), officials from multiple agencies made a case for the combined effort to suppress the blaze from the start. They said heavy springtime rainfall had produced tall, fine fuels, and later, when an intense heat wave kicked in, vegetation dried out, which set the stage for a difficult wildfire season. Finally, high "Checto effect" winds helped blow the fire up to 191,000 acres.

Adding in the 37,000-acre Miller Complex and 27,460-acre High Cascade fires, MacWhorter said 16 percent of the land base in the RRSNF burned this year.

"We were also competing with other National Forest regions for resources, particularly in Montana. So hot shot crews, incident management teams and aircraft were hard to come by," he said. "And finite resources can be pulled from one fire to another if higher values are threatened."

Firefighting anywhere in the Kalmiopsis is a challenge, and countless firefighters on the Chetco Bar fire reported some of the most "grueling," "scary" and "volatile" conditions of their careers.

Michael G. Apicello knows what they're talking about. In the 1980s, he was a smokejumper assigned to the now-closed Siskiyou Smokejumper base near Cave Junction, until injury in the line of duty grounded him. He went on to become a national spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service Aviation Management Program and a risk management and safety specialist.

"The only thing the smokejumpers could do when they got on the ground was run for their lives," said Apicello, about the 1987 Silver fire, which also burned in the Kalmiopsis.

Now retired, Apicello lives near Brookings, where six houses and several other structures were lost to the Chetco Bar fire.

"My own home was at risk, too. We evacuated for 15 days."

But at the public meeting in Brookings last week, he told the crowd that firefighters shouldn’t have to risk their lives for people who choose to live in homes nestled into wildland-urban interface areas.

"Wildfire fatalities have increased over the last 20 years due to three causes: aviation accidents from trying to get resources into areas where it's not safe; trying to move firefighters up and down steep slopes; and from snags falling on firefighters," he said. "Since 1994, I've dealt with at least 200 firefighter deaths, and I've come to believe that no structure is worth the life of a single firefighter."

— Reach Cave Junction freelance writer Annette McGee Rasch at annetterasch@yahoo.com.

A helicopter drops water on the Chetco Bar fire Sept. 19. [Photo by Andy Lyon]
Brendan O'Reilly of Prineville Hotshots conducts burnout operations on the Chetco Bar fire Sept. 18. [Photo by Andy Lyon]