Protecting the beautiful rivers, wild lands and legendary botanical diversity of Oregon's Kalmiopsis Country

The Biscuit Fire: Time to bury the myths

On July 13, 2002 a series of lightning storms ignited five fires in southwest Oregon’s rugged river-rich Kalmiopsis region. Four of the fires eventually became the known as the Biscuit Fire. Unlike the other two large fires of 2002, the Biscuit Fire destroyed few structures and took no lives.[1] Nonetheless it became the political football of the timber industry and Bush Administration.

This ASTER satellite image of the east side of the Biscuit Fire shows the abrupt transition along the established fire line—with the unburned landscape on one side and the blackened landscape created by Forest Service burnout operations on the other.

While in overall acreage it’s said to be one of the largest fires in Oregon’s history, the Biscuit Fire’s ultimate area was pre-determined by the placement of fire lines along ridges and existing roads and through the agency’s burning of the national forest land between the fireline and the fire. On the east side alone, an independent study estimated 100,000-acres were “blackened” as a fire surpression strategy.

Nor were these deliberately ignited fires designed to mimic natural fires. They often burned hot and in several instances got out of control and required additional surpression activities and more fire lines. In an August 20, 2002 article, AP reported that the Forest Service was using helicopters to drop flammable ping pong balls (essentially napalm) on the scattered unburned islands in a 50,000-acre burnout area on the northeastern flank of the fire. Except for the initial lightning strikes, there was little natural about a significant part of the Biscuit Fire.

Two of the five July 13th fires were in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. One of those, the Carter Fire, was contained at about 20 acres. The other, the Florence Fire, began in the same section where another lighting caused ignition in the year 2000 (the China Fire) was held to 5.2 acres at a cost of $22,000.[2]

USDA Forest Service photo of the Carter Fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness on day two. A decision was made to staff the fire as soon as possible and a fire crew hiked into the fire on July 14th. It was declared contained on July 16th at 15-20 acres.

Another 2000 lightning caused fire, also named Biscuit, began one section over from the 2002 Biscuit Fire. It was held to 4 acres at a cost of $30,550.00. The size of the 2002 Biscuit Fire was not about the inability to access the fires. Fires in almost the same areas had been surpressed two years earlier and held to small acreages at a relatively low cost.  In fact, the most remote one, the Carter Fire, was contained within a few days.

Biscuit Hill, the general location of one of 5 fires that were ignited by a lightning storm on July 13, 2002 and the sparsely vegetated botanically rich serpentine terrain of the Forest Service’s recommended South Kalmiopsis Wilderness Addition. Steve Marsden Photo, June 2012.

The Florence Fire was the most problematic of the 5 Biscuit Complex Fires. On August 7, 2002, before the fires were administratively merged, the Florence Fire had burned through 243,836 acres and the three Biscuit Fires to the south, 41,897 acres.

USDA Forest Service photo of one of two fires in the Biscuit Hill Area of the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area on day two of what because the 500,000-acre Biscuit Fire.

Unlike in Colorado, the weather, is seldom raised as a major driver of big wildfires in Southwest Oregon. Instead, the “two many trees” syndrom is seen as the as the primary culprit. But can we learn from the case studies of recent big Colorado fires?

What we do about the Biscuit Fire is that between July 9 and 13 there were record high temperatures and that the Siskiyou National Forest was experiencing uncharacteristically high fire danger indices. On July 12 through 15 there were 1200 lightning strikes in Oregon resulting in 375 fires, with 245 on federal lands in southwest Oregon. The first set of lightning storms on July 12th missed Josephine and Curry Counties but not on July 13th.[3]

At a Cave Junction public meeting the Forest Service’s fire behavior specialist said the Florence Fire’s “huge run on July 28th and 29th was caused by a weather anomaly that created strong northwesterly winds with low humidity.” He said weather events like that rarely happened before fall or winter. Another Forest Service official explained that the Florence Fire was a terrain driven event, with the fire seeking narrow places as it made a 2 1/2 mile run up the Illinois River Canyon from Oak Flat.  But these accounts are considered anecdotal because the behavior of the two fires (still Florence and Biscuit at that time) and the terrain they encountered were never analyzed.

According to the Forest Service’s Biscuit Fire Chronology, on July 26th the Florence Fire was estimated at around 16,000-acres and the Sour Biscuit Fire at 3,700-acres. On July 30th the fires had grown to an estimated 141,650-acres and 33, 287-acres respectively. During that period one Forest Service official described the Florence Fire as sending huge smoke plumes thousands of feet into the air, which then collapsed in on themselves, exploding and sending flames as much a mile ahead of the fire itself.

Why does all this matter? In Colorado they’re working toward answering that question. In 2002, then Representative Mark Udall immediately called for an inquiry into the Hayman Fire and as a Senator in 2010, for the Fourmile Canyon Fire. Those two case studies provide an important body of knowledge about weather driven fire behavior and the efficacy of fuels treatment . See 2002 Hayman Fire Case Study and Preliminary Findings Fourmile Canyon Assessment Team. Here are some key findings of the latter:

Large fires burn under high winds and low relative humidity … when suppression efforts are ineffective.

The changes in fire activity in this area were primarily a result of changing weather (increases in humidity and decreases in wind, see figure 28) and topography (northerly aspect) rather than because of changes in forest structure and composition as a result of a fuel treatment.

Given the inevitability of future wildfires and thus wildfires with extreme burning conditions that overwhelm fire protection, focusing on reducing home ignition potential is the key to preventing WUI fire disasters.

In some cases, treated stands appeared to burn more intensely than adjacent untreated stands, perhaps because of additional surface fuels present as a result of the thinning.

83% of home destruction was associated with surface fire and consistent with other WUI fire disasters. This indicates survival or loss of homes exposed to wildfire flames and firebrands (lofted burning embers) is not determined by the overall fire behavior or distance of firebrand lofting but rather, the condition of the Home Ignition Zone (HIZ) – the design, materials and maintenance of the home in relation to its immediate surroundings within 100 feet.

A critical finding was that most landowners surveyed prior to the fire did not believe that characteristics of their home and immediate surroundings were significant factors influencing the likelihood of a wildfire damaging their property within the next five years. These perceptions are refuted in the scientific literature and the home ignition assessment within this report.

Southwest Oregon escaped the tragedies experienced in Colorado—the significant loss of homes and life—but can we learn from case studies done in Colorado.

Long after the ground cooled and most of the controversial Biscuit Fire post-fire logging timber sales were done deasl, those promoting post-fire logging as necessary for forest recovery fanned the flames again when in 2006 a research team published their myth busting findings in the prestigious journal Science. The short report generated a political and scientific firestorm including two congressional hearings, countless academic freedom discussions and a government investigation. The controversy even has it’s own Wikipedia entry  Lead author Dan Donato to High Country News in 2006:

We wrote a paper. We challenged some widespread assumptions, specifically that there’s a lack of natural regeneration after a big fire. The Biscuit Fire was actually being put up as the poster child, and we were sitting on two full years of data that showed not only were seedlings establishing, they were surviving. So we felt like if we were going to have a fully informed public dialogue, it was our responsibility to get those numbers out. And it wasn’t well received by everybody.

Nonetheless their research has stood the test of time and been confirmed by other scientists.

Dispelling the myths surrounding the Biscuit fire isn’t about finding blame but about trying to gain a better understanding—of the fire, of the botanically rich landscape, with its hauntingly beautiful rivers, that it burned through and of the effect of the changing climate and future fires—or at least  to deepen the discussion. That discussion should have started a decade ago but it didn’t.

Instead almost before the fire was out the Biscuit Fire was made into a media circus and feeding frenzy through the gross exaggerations of potential post-fire timber volume. Anyone that knew the land, knew it wasn’t there. But the Bush Administration was very good at spinning something out of nothing—as with the weapons of mass destruction that never were.

In early July of 2002 there was record breaking heat. According to the Forest Service fire danger indices on the Siskiyou National Forest were uncharacteristically high. On July 12 through 15 there were 12,000 lightning strikes in Oregon, resulting in 375 fires, 240 of which were on federal lands in southwest Oregon.Some of the initial fires from a July 13, 2002  thunderstorm in southwestern Oregon were extinguished or died out on their own. The Sour Biscuit and Florence Fires, however grew—driven by extreme weather conditions. With Forest Service burnout operations, which by one account resulted in the “blackening” of about 1/3 of the 500,000 acre fire area, became known simply as the “Biscuit Fire.” It’s ultimate size was predetermined by the Forest Service’s fire surpression strategy and the location of fire lines. While the ignition was natural, much about the Biscuit Fire after that was not, but sorting out the facts was—unlike with the 138,000 acre Hayman Fire in Colorado that just prior to the Biscuit Fires in 2002 destroyed 132 homes and resulted in the loss of 6 lives—never done.

The ignitions and the early days may be the only thing that we can know for sure was natural about the fires. At a certain point, information became heavily managed as high level incident teams took over from the local Forest Service. For their safety, reporters were essentially embeded with fire crews, but the results also were that they were shown and told what the agency wanted them to see and hear.

The relatively few residents within the fire area were told to leave for their own safety. Again for safety, guards were placed at the perimeter roads. The one civilian witness, who chose to stay and defend his home, tells a different story from the official one about the fire at Oak Flat that blew-up and burned up the Illinois River Canyon toward Cave Junction. This is an excerpt from his eye witness chronology of events as published in Forest Voice:

July 25: … At this point in our story, we believed Oak Flat had survived the Florence Fire with little loss. Total damage from the wildfire itself was limited to water lines that serve the Quintaro and Maynard properties and our home, plus a few small structures at Golda’s property. I also lost my lumber, but that was from a government-ignited fire. We got on the radiophone to tell our neighbors that the worst was behind us: the fire had come, gone and done little damage; mopping up was all that was left to do.

Firefighters returned to Oak Flat at about 10A.M. They resumed cutting brush near the river. That afternoon, a real hot scorcher, firefighters set backfires behind our property and burned up the rest of our water line over to No Name Creek.

July 26: Firefighters resumed work while fallers cut down hazard trees. That evening, I went up the ridge to inspect the area backfired the previous day. A fire commander had told me earlier, before they quit for the day, that the line they were building to stop the backfire from coming back down the ridge to Oak Flat had been lost.

July 27: At 6 A.M., I saw the backfire had exploited the breach in the line and was creeping slowly down the ridge back toward Oak Flat. Had firefighters jumped on the backfire early that morning or the previous night, I believe it could have been controlled. I bulldozed a fire trail along the upper part of our property to try to slow the backfire down. A large crew of government firefighters arrived at 10 A.M. They held their regular safety meeting for about an hour (the normal and most effective time for firefighting is during the night or at first light, when the fire is cool). Our daughter arrived at noon with a new water tank and pipe so we could rebuild our water line. About an hour later, as the afternoon heated up, the backfire came rushing down the hillside. It burned up much of our private timber and destroyed the Huerta, Egan and Lloyd homes, as well as our newly installed water lines and tanks. Firefighters retreated to our property. A helicopter dumped water until propane tanks started exploding. Firefighters retreated along the upper logging road in the evening.

The backfire then ran south and east up the Illinois River and eventually overran the McCaleb Ranch Boy Scout Camp, burning virtually the entire length of the Illinois River from Oak Flat to the national forest boundary north of Selma—a distance of fourteen miles. In addition to the structures destroyed at Oak Flat, the backfire wiped out private timber holdings along the way and thousands of acres of national forest. Emphasis added.

Read Jerry Sorenson’s full account here.[2]

George Sexton, conservation director at the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and a friend of the Kalmiopsis, hasn’t been put off by the post-fire landscape, spending many days in the Kalmiopsis backcountry in the last decade. He’s the first to call for a better understanding of what happened in 2002. He writes in the May 6th Medford Mail Tribune:

It’s been nearly 10 years since the July 2002 lightning storm that sparked the 500,000 acre Biscuit fire. For many of us in Southern Oregon, the Biscuit fire was a defining event — beloved forests were drastically altered, the politics of logging and wildlands protection were turned on their heads and the realities of living in a fire-evolved landscape came home to roost.

Read George’s guest opinion here.

Maybe as George writes,

with the passage of time it is now possible to look back more objectively at Biscuit and the political firestorm that followed in its wake.

Because so much of the Kalmiopsis Wildlands was affected by the Biscuit Fire, we want to help with that “objective look back” in the hopes of putting to rest the politically driven myths and gaining a better understanding of a landscape shaped by fire, geology and time.

Additional information:

[1] The 2002 Hayman Fire  in Colorado was 137,000+ acres. It destroyed 133 homes, 1 commercial building and 466 outbuildings. The area of the Hayman Fire has numerous roads. It’s one example that the presence of roads, when wildland fires are weather driven, provide little help. The 2002 Rodeo-Chedeski Fire in Arizona was 467,000 acres in size. It burned in a heavily logged and roaded landscape (2146 miles of road/3 miles of road per square mile) landscape, with dense tree plantations. The roads were not effective fire breaks but they did provide access to the people who started the fire.

[2] Information on the China Fire is from Forest Service Wildland Fire Reports acquired through the Freedom of Information Act.

[3] Description of fire conditions is from the USDA Forest Service’s 2002 Biscuit Fire Chronology (October 11, 2002).

[4] This is an important read for understanding some of the behavior and impacts of the Biscuit Fire. It’s likely the only candid civilian account of Forest Service firefighting practices during the blow-up of the Florence Fire.  Mr. Sorensen is a logger and fishing guide living on a private inholding within the Siskiyou National Forest at Oak Flat. He’s quiet, practical and self-sufficient.


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