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

The Biscuit Fire: Time to bury the myth

Introduction and updates

On July 13, 2002, a lightning storm ignited five fires in southwest Oregon’s rugged river-rich Kalmiopsis region. Four of the fires eventually became known as the Biscuit Fire. Unlike many large wildfires, the Biscuit Fire destroyed few structures and took no lives. Nonetheless it became the political football of the timber industry and Bush Administration. To this day the Biscuit Fire and the diverse land within its 500,000 acre perimeter remains infamous and little understood, despite extensive scientific research conducted in its wake.

Part of Biscuit fire’s infamy was that it spawned the largest and most controversial timber sale in the history of our National Forests. See this 2005 High Country News article by the late great investigative journalist Kathie Durbine.

Investigative journalist Kathie Durbine stands amid the ancient burned trees that were logged during the Biscuit post-fire Fiddler Late-Successional Reserve timber sale. Pre-eminent Forest Ecologist Jerry Franklin recently testified before Congress that post-fire logging “generally impedes ecological recovery—often to significant degrees.” Barbara Ullian photo.

The reasons first used to justify the need for such extensive post fire logging in Late-Successional Forest Reserves and Inventoried Roadless Areas are discussed in this 2003 High County News article (also by Kathie Durbine). However, since then studies conducted in the Biscuit and Silver fire areas after the Biscuit timber sales provide evidence that such extensive post fire logging has no ecological justification and at least in the short term increases the risk of future wild fire. 

Initially, the first findings of the Oregon State University researchers, touched of a nationwide controversy about the attempt to suppress a short paper describing the results of extensive field work conducted before and after the Biscuit post-fire logging. However over time research in the area has continued and become accepted.

See for example these summary discussions about some of the research:

Post updates in the wake of the 2017 Chetco Bar and 2018 Klondike fires

This post, originally written for the 10th anniversary of the Biscuit fire, was updated on 4/30/2018 in light of the many misperceptions about the infamous fire found in the media during and after the Chetco Bar fire. The 2017 fire burned, in part, within the perimeter of the Biscuit fire.

Now in the wake of the 2018 Klondike fire, it’s even more apparent that there’s still a need for a better understanding of the Biscuit and other wildlands fires that have burned in the Kalmiopsis Wildlands. One of the issues rarely if ever addressed in the media is the effects and efficacy of fire suppression efforts.

Klondike Fire
This USFS photo of a pyrocumulus cloud on the east side of the Klondike fire is often used by the media to dramatize their articles but it’s never explained that the dramatic smoke plume is actually from the beginning of the US Forest Service burn out operation along the Illinois River Road and the National Wild and Scenic Illinois River.

Read below some of the things about the 2002 Biscuit Fire that are rarely if ever discussed in the media or by the U.S. Forest Service.

The Biscuit Fire’s size was pre-determined

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.

The Biscuit Complex fire is said to be one of the largest wildlands fires in Oregon’s history. Never mentioned is the fact that the Biscuit Fire’s ultimate size was pre-determined by the placement of fire lines along ridges and existing roads or trails. Then an estimated third to one-half of the 500,000 acres of National Forest lands within the Biscuit fire perimeter were deliberately set fire to by the U.S. Forest Service as the agency’s primary fire suppression strategy.

Here’s how Tim Ingalsbee of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethic and Ecology describes burnout fires in Collateral Damage: The Environmental Effects of Firefighting, The 2002 Biscuit Fire Suppression Actions and Impacts,

One of the many paradoxes of fire suppression is that it involves a considerable amount of human-caused fire reintroduction under the philosophy of “fighting fire with fire.” The most routine form of suppression firing is called “burnout,” in which firefighters ignite low-intensity fires adjacent to the fireline to consume all the surface fuels, “blacken” the fireline, and thereby strengthen and secure it. Nearly every linear foot of perimeter fireline on each wildfire suppression incident is burned out by firefighters, and this can add up to a lot of acreage depending on the total amount of fireline constructed (including interior firelines that were burned over and abandoned)

On Zone 1—the east side of the Biscuit fire area—Ingalsbee’s study found over 106,000-acres were deliberately burned by the U.S. Forest Service as a fire suppression strategy.[2] This number does not include the burn outs from the three other Zones of the Biscuit fire.

Some Forest Service officials argue that the National Forest lands burned during the Biscuit fire burnout operations would have burned anyway and that the fires were natural. But these deliberately ignited fires did not, nor were they designed to, mimic natural fires. They often burned hot and in several instances got out of control, spread the fire and required additional suppression activities and more fire lines.

The study, Collateral Damage found that,

fire reintroduction via suppression firing operations were an important factor in the spread of the wildfire.

And that ,

At the upstream Oak Flat [on the Wild and Scenic Illinois River], a local resident witnessed a series of backfires ignited near his home on July 24-25, 2002 that destroyed some of his property and his neighbors’ homes, and then spread to the McCaleb Ranch Boy Scout Camp where the fire destroyed the camp’s structures.[41] The Forest Service acknowledges that a backfire caused property damage to the downstream community, but still denies that a backfire caused property destruction to the upstream community, mainly because firefighters had quickly evacuated the area after igniting the backfire, and there were no other witnesses except for a local resident.

See below for excerpts from the property owner who witnessed the backfire at the upstream Oak Flat..

The Collateral Damage report has been the only objective analysis of the Biscuit burnout fires. Both the media and the Forest Service argued they saved the homes and communities located in the Illinois Valley. It found that:

… during the episodes of major fire spread, winds were mainly pushing the wildfire westward away from these communities, which facilitated the success of the large-scale burnout operations. Ironically, the closest the Biscuit Fire ever came to the communities in the Illinois Valley were the result of the burnouts, not the wildfire itself. On several occasions during the wildfire incident, suppression records reveal that the burnouts were the major source of active burning or fire spread. Indeed, in some areas, burnouts were ignited along firelines that were located as much as eight miles away from the main fire.

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. Large-scale burnout fires like those set by the Forest Service on the east side of the Biscuit fire where there’s an objective to eliminate all fuels, can homogenize “the natural mosaic patter of fire effects by creating large contiguous areas of completely blackened soil and vegetation.” Click here to read more about the impacts and efficacy of fire suppression tactics.

In short, there was little natural about the extensive fires set by the U.S. Forest Service during the Biscuit Complex fire and it size was predetermined. 

Biscuit is not the largest fire in Oregon’s recorded history.

The Biscuit fire is often referred to in the media as the largest fire in Oregon’s recorded history but its not even close. The 1845 Great fire burned 1.5 million acres in Oregon and the 1865 Silverton fire burned 1 million acres. The 1902 Yacolt fire burned over 1 million acres in Oregon and Washington. with 146 homes destroyed. See the chart of America’s largest fires on American Experience’s Big Burn webpage.

Five fires, with the Florence Fire the most problematic

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.[3]

USFS photo of the 2002 Carter Fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness on day two. A decision was made to staff the fire as soon as possible. A crew hiked into the fire on July 14th. The fire was declared contained on July 16th at 15-20 acres. Note that the terrain of the Carter fire, is very different from where the 2017 Chetco Bar fire originated. It’s less steep and remote and did not require crossing of the Chetco River.

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 suppressed two years earlier and held to small acreages at a relatively low cost.  In fact, the most remote of the five original Biscuit fires—the Carter Fire—was contained in 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 Biscuit Complex fires. On August 7, 2002, the Florence fire had burned through 243,836 acres and the three other remaining 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.

The Biscuit Fire was primarily a weather-driven fire

Unlike in Colorado, the weather, is seldom raised as a major driver of big wildfires in Southwest Oregon. Instead, the “too many trees” syndrome is seen as the as the primary culprit. We need lean from other fire case studies—such as those for the large Colorado fires— to include weather, as the most significant driver of large wildland fires.

Unfortunately today, the role of weather is still not often part of the discussion around the Biscuit fire. However, we do know that between July 9 and 13 of 2002, there were record high temperatures and that the area of Southwest Oregon where the Siskiyou National Forest is located 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 the storm of July 13th.[4]

At a Cave Junction fire information 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 extremely 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 are not found in accounts of the fire and were not factored into the U.S. Forest Service’s analysis.

According to the agency’s Biscuit Fire Chronology, on July 26th the Florence fire was estimated at around 16,000-acres and the Sour Biscuit fires 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.

Lessons from Colorado

Why does all this matter? In Colorado they’re working toward answering this question. In 2002, then Representative Mark Udall immediately called for an inquiry into the Hayman Fire. See the Hayman Fire Case Study. As a Senator in 2010, he made the same request for the Fourmile Canyon Fire. See Fourmile Canyon: Living with Wildfire and Fourmile Canyon Fire Findings. The case studies provide an important body of knowledge about fire behavior in Colorado during extreme weather conditions and about the efficacy of fuels treatment during weather driven fire events. Here are some key findings:

  • 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?

Emerging science of natural post-fire recovery and effects of post fire logging and dangers of disproving long-held beliefs

Long after the ground had cooled and most of the controversial post-fire Biscuit timber sales had been clearcut, those promoting post-fire logging as necessary for forest recovery fanned the flames again. This time, it was their attempt to squelch the 2006 myth busting findings of a team of Oregon State University researchers about to be published in the prestigious journal Science.

The short report generated its own political and scientific firestorm, that included two congressional hearings, countless discussions around academic freedom and a government investigation. The controversy even has it’s own Wikipedia entry  Lead author of the report, Dan Donato, described it this way in High Country News:

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. Many of these papers are available by searching the web but we’ll try to make a list available soon.

Learning together

Dispelling the myths surrounding the Biscuit fire isn’t about finding blame. It’s about trying to gain a better understanding of fire in a botanically rich and geologically complex landscape in a warming and changing climate. We need to better understand the effects of fire and of post fire logging on the  hauntingly beautiful rivers of the Kalmiopsis.,That discussion should have started a decade ago but it didn’t. See afterwards below.

An eye-witness account of the fire that threatened the Illinois Valley

It was not the Biscuit fire per se that threatened the Illinois Valley in 2002 but a combination of extreme weather, the Florence fire, which really took off in the logged and planted areas that burned during the Silver Fire, and a large backfire set by U.S. Forest Service fire fighters as fire suppression strategy. The latter breached fire lines and burned into an area at Oak Flat, which had made it through the lightning generated fire a few days earlier.

The relatively few residents along the Illinois River Road, from Oak Flat to Forest Service boundary were told to evacuate. For safety, guards were placed at the perimeter roads. The two civilian witnesses—who chose to stay and defend their home and those of their neighbors at Oak Flat—tell a story about the big weather-driven fire that burned up the Illinois River Canyon toward Cave Junction that’s different from the official Forest Service report that provides little detail. One outside account said that the backburn the Forest Service set was 34,000 acres in size. This was larger than the lightning caused fires that were being fought by the agency.

Below is an excerpt from Gayle and Jerry Sorensen’s eye witness account of the events in July 2002 at Oak Flat. It was originally published in Forest Magazine, a publication of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics

July 25, 2002

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, 2002

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, 2002—beginning at 6:00 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.

Apologies, but the edition of Forest Magazine with the Sorensen’s full account of their harrowing experience during the Florence fire is no longer available on the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethic’s website. We’ll try to make it available in another way.

Passionate about the Kalmiopsis | Seeing the real beauty

George Sexton, conservation director at KS Wild and a friend of the Kalmiopsis, hasn’t been put off by the post-fire landscape, He’s spent many days in the Kalmiopsis backcountry over the last decade. On the approaching 10th anniversary of the lightning storm that initiated the five fires that became the Biscuit fire, he’s calling for a better understanding of what happened in back in 2002. He writes in the May 6, 2012 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.

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

Read George’s guest opinion here.

Afterward | April 30, 2018

We’ve made needed edits to this post from five years ago. Over the years, the area of the 2002 Biscuit fire has become one of the most studied fire areas in the nation. However, because U.S. Forest Service information rarely, if at all, mentions how the agency predetermined the 500,000 acre size of the Biscuit fire, and as a fire suppression tactic burned several hundred thousand acre of National Forest lands between the constructed fire line and the actual fire, the research does not take these facts into account. This failure may affect some findings of the post-fire research, especially in determining burn severity patterns and other effects of the Biscuit fire.

The scientists studying the effects of the Silver and Biscuit fires are cautious not to overstate their findings. They often raise as many questions as they provide answers and emphasis the need for long term studies. However despite more a decade of research specific to the Biscuit fire area (published in peer reviewed scientific journals) local office holders are stuck in the heavily politicized rhetoric of the past. These political figures misinform the public by making absolutist statements that are not based on the facts as we currently know them.

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. There’s much to learn about this most amazing wild area that’s home to three National Wild and Scenic Rivers—the Illinois, Chetco and North Fork Smith—and five U.S. Forest Service Eligible Wild and Scenic Rivers—Baldface, Rough and Ready, Canyon/Josephine, Silver and Indigo creeks.

Additional information:

Notes

[1] Timothy Ingalsbee, Collateral Damage: The Environmental Effects of Fire Fighting – 2002 Biscuit Fire (4 MB download)

[2] 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.

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

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

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