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Afterburn: How Oregon’s Winter Fire charred the land and burned tempers.
Range Magazine ^ | Summer '03 | Judy Blais

Posted on 10/08/2003 7:12:38 PM PDT by Carry_Okie

Afterburn: How Oregon’s Winter Fire charred the land and burned tempers.

By Judy Blais

Flames raced across Dutchman’s Flat and plunged down into the Punch Bowl, a rugged area near the center of Oregon’s Summer Lake Valley. It was clogged with an accumulation of fuel from decades of neglect and the firestorm exploded into a maelstrom of such raw power that even seasoned firefighters were awed. Self-generated winds fanned the frenzy, culminating in a fire tornado that raged crazily up and down forests of pine, juniper and mountain mahogany, demolishing everything in its path.

Starved for oxygen, the tornado reared up like a giant slinky from hell, igniting pyroclastic air masses, then plunged back to the ground, incinerating everything within reach. Ravenous for more oxygen, it whirled back up, plucking full-grown trees from the rocky soil and tossing them 300 feet or more into the air like massive burning torches. The 10-mile path is clearly visible today from Highway 31 as blackened, sand-blasted trees surrounded by acres of brown, scorched forestland.

On July 14, 2002, commercial airline pilots reported the plume of smoke over the Punch Bowl reaching 35,000 feet. The Winter Fire quickly earned the rank of number one in the nation, convincing Governor Kitzhaeber to trigger Oregon’s Conflagration Act.

How did a single lightning strike become the nation’s worst forest fire?

The night of July 12 the peaceful ranching community was lit by strobe-like flashes of dry lightning followed by crashes of thunder resonating across the valley. Around 10 p.m. someone spotted smoke from a lightning strike in the southwest end of the valley. He immediately phoned the Lakeview Interagency Fire Center (LIFC). Others traveling Highway 31 that evening also reported the fire to 911 and LIFC.

Next morning, a rancher spotted smoke in the worst possible location, given the valley’s strong prevailing southern and westerly winds. He phoned LIFC at 4:15 a.m. “LIFC told me they knew all about it, but had no water tenders available in Region Six,” rancher Wayne Leehman said. “There were four water tenders available for initial attack, all less than 30 miles from the fire, that weren’t called.”

Water tenders were ordered from Redding, Calif., about a five- to six-hour drive from Summer Lake. In Lakeview, LIFC failed to notify the Summer Lake Volunteer Fire Department. Instead, the valley’s small crew drove 60 miles in the opposite direction to assist the Silver Lake Fire Department on what eventually became the Toolbox Fire.

Long before dawn, a small crew of ranchers chopped and bulldozed a fire line in an attempt to contain the fire, just 50 yards off a gravel road. Their relief when a water tender finally showed up was short-lived.

“The driver couldn’t back the thing up and refused to drive into the fire. He was afraid he’d get stuck even though I showed him where I’d driven with my pickup,” rancher Corky Colahan said. “At that point the fire could have been contained, but by 10 a.m. we lost any hope of fighting the fire that day. It was on the run.”

The fire grew in intensity as morning winds picked up. Neighbors, prepared to use their own equipment to help put out the fire or bulldoze fire lines on private property, were threatened with lawsuits and ordered off by state and federal officials.

Unreasonable orders had little effect on ranchers accustomed to using common sense and taking charge during a crisis. After constructing fire lines around one ranch, they moved on to a century-old homestead owned by a couple in their seventies. As neighbors began spraying water from a homebuilt tender, a U.S. Forest Service (FS) employee demanded to know why they were watering the roof without authorization. “I told her we were trying to save our elderly neighbors’ home and if she didn’t want to help, she’d better get out of the way,” one of the volunteers said. The house was saved.

FS personnel and the Oregon Department of Forestry’s (ODF) Overhead Team were involved in a fight of their own at the Paisley School, squabbling over which agency had jurisdiction over the fire. During those critical hours that morning of the 13th, the fire decided all on its own just exactly who was in charge.

Tanker planes were finally ordered in to drop fire-retardant chemicals on a fire that had now grown to several hundred acres. After a few unsuccessful passes in the turbulent air, the pilots reached their maximum flying hours for the day and were called off.

The night of the 13th was an anomaly for Summer Lake. Not a breath of air moved. Relieved residents woke to the sight of two thin columns of smoke rising straight up; one on the north end of the burned-over area, the other on the south. Skies were clear, winds calm and visibility excellent.

When asked on the morning of the 14th when tankers and crews would be on the fire, the Paisley District forest ranger replied that the fire was not high enough on their priority list. They did not have the resources available and were not going to do anything.

That afternoon, the fire formed two fronts, raging powerfully to the north, traveling six miles up the valley and climbing up and over 7,000-foot Winter Ridge to the west.

“When I first saw the fire it had lain down and was dead calm,” said Summer Lake’s Fire Chief Gary Brain. When it kicked up, the veteran of 30 years fighting fires teamed with Jim Davis, a structural fire expert from Molalla on loan to ODF. “We knew we were overwhelmed and contacted the District Fire Office in Lakeview to ask for the state mobilization plan. We called three times. We were told that the chief was out of town and that the fire was not enough of a threat.”

Lake County Commissioners refused the use of an operator and county grader located 10 miles north of the fire. Crews were forced to use a less efficient brush hog to clear fire lines around Ana Estates. Jim Davis finally went straight to the state fire marshall. “Within 24 hours we had 15 structure trucks here,” Brain said.

Davis, Brain and others rushed from house to house, showing homeowners how to protect their property. People worked frantically, grubbing out around buildings, cutting down trees and watering everything their hoses would reach. After the power went out, water tenders continued to soak down dwellings on both sides of Highway 31. Bulldozers crawled across steep rocky hills and low-lying pastures, creating fire lines.

At the end of the week, the Toolbox Fire above Silver Lake merged with the Winter Fire, threatening Ana Estates at the north end of the valley and anything to the northeast including, potentially, the populous Bend/Redmond area.

The two fires merged with fewer sparks than between FS (in charge of the Toolbox Fire) and ODF personnel (in charge of the Winter Fire). “It was a pissing match between federal and state agencies that shouldn’t have happened,” Brain recalled. “After screaming nose to nose with the supervisor of the Forest Service Type One Team, the ODF supervisor finally said he’d had enough and was going down to Ana Estates because that’s where the fire would be in three hours. It actually took half an hour. By then, the ODF supervisor had a fire truck in every driveway.

“It had taken ODF four to five days to listen to the locals and figure out how the winds work in the Summer Lake Valley,” he added. “The Forest Service didn’t listen and ordered a crew of 20 to backburn the fire in a down-slope wind. That’s not possible! Three trucks were trapped. The crews barely escaped into a burned-out area.” In another situation, 13 people ended up at Saint Charles Hospital in Bend with burns and smoke inhalation.

Brain credits California Department of Forestry crews for finally defeating the fire. “They decided the fire was not going to jump Highway 31 and fought it face to face. It was unbelievable!”

There are those who believe people have no right to live near a national forest, yet artifacts show that the Summer Lake Valley has been inhabited by humans for over 10,000 years. In the more recent past, loggers were scattered strategically around the forest and often had a fire under control or out before it could be reported.

Wind patterns, unique only to Summer Lake and Lake Elsinore in California, create down-slope winds, causing fires to burn downhill rather than up, a phenomenon that has been studied and written up in firefighting textbooks.

Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife policies have been drying up Summer Lake earlier each year, leaving a 200-square-mile alkali lake bed which acts as a heat engine, creating tremendous updrafts that suck westerly winds down from the 7,000-foot escarpment. Winds would have been more predictable and much less severe with the cooling effect of water.

When the last spark finally died out, the Winter Fire had destroyed 34,000 acres of land that explorer John Fremont described in 1843 as “a jewel in the middle of the desert.” Combined with the 60,000-acre Toolbox Fire, suppression costs on the 150 square miles of burned-over forestland approach $25 million. This doesn’t include rehabilitation, the value of the marketable timber or the loss in time and property suffered by private landowners.

“I guess the good news is that only 15 percent of the Fremont National Forest burned last summer,” Brain said. “The bad news is that there’s still 85 percent left to burn as we enter another fire season later this year. And it’s not just us; the entire West is at risk.

“There is only one way to fight a forest fire. You have to stomp on it and stomp it good while it can still be stomped. The FS and ODF have been regulated out of fighting a fire by OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration]. Since OSHA rules are meant to keep everybody 100 percent safe, they try to manage a fire now instead of fighting it. A forest fire calls for the use of aggressive caution, common sense and the ability to learn from mistakes. It will never be 100 percent safe.”

The once-beautiful Summer Lake Valley has become a washed-out sepia landscape of blackened trees hanging onto land vacuumed of topsoil. Recovery is not going to be swift or easy for vegetation, wildlife, or the people who continue to live there.

TOPICS: Crime/Corruption; Government; US: Arizona; US: California; US: Colorado; US: Idaho; US: Montana; US: Nevada; US: New Mexico; US: Oregon; US: Washington; US: Wyoming
KEYWORDS: carryokie; environment; fire; forestfires; oregon
This article is used with permission from award-winning quarterly RANGE magazine. For subscriptions or information go to or call 1-800-RANGE-4-U.

The key to this story is to recognze a system that exists at variance to its purpose, which is only to perpetuate itself, not to care for a forest. It is a structurally-incompetent system, bound by procedure and legality, incapable of accomplishing it's purported goals even if it were so dedicated.

It isn't, simply because there is too much money to be made manipulating the value of resources.

It is important to recognize that not only does government environmental management not work, it CAN'T work, no matter how much political pressure is brought upon Congress to act. No reform, law, or initiative will change that fact. It is a fact the founders of this nation understood.

There is an alternative. It starts with private property.

1 posted on 10/08/2003 7:12:39 PM PDT by Carry_Okie
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2 posted on 10/08/2003 7:13:09 PM PDT by Support Free Republic (Your support keeps Free Republic going strong!)
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To: Scott from the Left Coast; sasquatch; hedgetrimmer; LisaAnne; Sir Francis Dashwood; EggsAckley; ...
This story should burn you.
3 posted on 10/08/2003 7:15:24 PM PDT by Carry_Okie (The environment is too complex and too important to be managed by politics.)
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To: Carry_Okie
Thanks for the heads up!
4 posted on 10/08/2003 7:32:59 PM PDT by Alamo-Girl
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To: Carry_Okie
There are those who believe people have no right to live near a national forest

Enviro-greens (communists in "clean water" wrapping) are the most powerful lobby in the state of Washington, after the Teacher's Union. And they are destroying the original concept of multi-use National Forests. Just trying to use them for even recreation is getting more and more difficult (ask any ski area owner). The irony is they not only end up ruining economies (like in California, Washington and Oregon), but they also end up trashing the environment they purport to hold Holy. They have left all reason far, far behind.

5 posted on 10/08/2003 7:54:53 PM PDT by Scott from the Left Coast
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To: Carry_Okie
There is a bright side to all this.

The erosion from rainfall next year will wash a huge bunch of gold nuggets into the nearby streams.

This should make gold panning and gold dredging really profitable next year.
6 posted on 10/08/2003 8:02:29 PM PDT by Chewbacca (Nothing burps better than bacon!)
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To: Carry_Okie
7 posted on 10/08/2003 8:12:59 PM PDT by NormsRevenge (Semper Fi)
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To: Carry_Okie
And let us not forget these kids who were sacrificed on the altar of environmentalism:

Firefighters who were there tell the story of the deadly Thirty Mile blaze: 'It's snowing fire'

Surprisingly, the Seattle Times has left the links to their pictures intact.

8 posted on 10/08/2003 8:23:33 PM PDT by snopercod (BEGIN PGP ENCRYPED TAGLINE: )dfk04!-+=k[0kom,4EG-98a;f7fqa\{0faGFYbbXsa9J69376mKJ098sd=Ln-D)
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To: snopercod
9 posted on 10/08/2003 8:49:01 PM PDT by Carry_Okie (The environment is too complex and too important to be managed by politics.)
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To: Carry_Okie
Thanks for the ping!
10 posted on 10/08/2003 9:12:54 PM PDT by LisaAnne
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To: LisaAnne
That kind of appalling stupidity bears wider distribution.

If you don't already take Range Magazine, I reccommend it. I wish they had supplied me photographs, because it is almost always gorgeously illustrated.
11 posted on 10/08/2003 9:18:59 PM PDT by Carry_Okie (The environment is too complex and too important to be managed by politics.)
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To: Scott from the Left Coast
"The irony is they not only end up ruining economies (like in California, Washington and Oregon), but they also end up trashing the environment they purport to hold Holy. They have left all reason far, far behind."

But it's not about "saving the environment"; it is about "ruining economies".

To them, it makes all the sense in the world. The watermelon greens are achieving their objective -- the destruction of capitalism.

12 posted on 10/08/2003 9:32:26 PM PDT by okie01 ( Congress isn't for the morally halt and the mentally lame.)
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To: Carry_Okie
It's scary how inept the forestry service has become. I forwarded this thread to quite a few of my friends. Thank you for posting it.
13 posted on 10/08/2003 9:33:06 PM PDT by LisaAnne
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To: LisaAnne
CDF is just as bad.

The employee unions run the whole thing.
14 posted on 10/08/2003 10:28:36 PM PDT by Carry_Okie (The environment is too complex and too important to be managed by politics.)
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To: okie01

I am wondering just how many Islamic types are members of these national forest rangers and/or the sierra groups.  

[The islamic chaplaincy is a security mistake that will only serve to injure our nation.

Our leaders believe there exists a "pacifist" version of Islam. I think that's naive and belied by any reasonably literate interpretation of the actual words on the pages of the Koran. I've watched and read as islamic scholars are asked if democracy is a viable governmental system according to the Koran. To a man they've denied democracy and insisted that a caliphate is the only credible government according to islamic law. Think abou that for even a fraction of a moment, and you'll see the issue.

The religion itself calls on islamics within our military to deny the validity our governmental structure.

This is a black eye for the chaplaincy. It documents for me the incredible mistake of our chaplaincy providing organizing opportunities for islam within our own military through the religious programs, structures, and budgets. We must remember that fundamental islam believes there should be no distinction between religious and governmental structures.

Chaplain (Retired) US Army18 posted on

15 posted on 10/26/2003 10:47:15 PM PST by thatcher
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