Above: The Chetco Bar Fire on July 13, 2017, day two, as seen from a helicopter during the Type 3 Incident Commander’s first recon flight.
Originally published at 10:47 a.m. MDT October 2, 2017.
In mid-August when the Chetco Bar Fire in southwest Oregon quadrupled in size during a four-day period from 22,042 to 97,758 acres, some began wondering, in comments on this site and other venues, why the U.S. Forest Service did not suppress it soon after it was reported by a commercial airline pilot at 2:42 p.m. July 12.
Since it started the fire has burned 191,090 acres and cost taxpayers almost $61 million.
The USFS has released a high tech timeline presentation that highlights some of the decisions and events that occurred during the course of the fire. It is embedded at the bottom of this article. Some of the interactive map features may not work — if that is the case, you can view it the USFS website.
The fire started from a lightning strike during a storm on June 24 and 25 and was spotted by the airline pilot 17 days later. The timeline does not mention if infrared flights or any other detection methods were used that possibly could have resulted in an initial attack on the fire soon after it started rather than more than two weeks later.
A fixed wing Air Attack ship was dispatched after the airliner pilot’s report. Air Attack recommended dispatching a Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT), a helicopter for water bucket support, and inserting rappellers. At that time the fire had burned about half an acre.
The first four firefighters rappelled into the area an hour and 32 minutes after the first report. Three helicopters dropped 17,280 gallons of water on the fire that afternoon and evening until after 9 p.m., but no air tankers worked the fire until a SEAT made two drops on the second day, July 13. While the helicopters dropped water, the four firefighters built a helispot. At the end of the first day Air Attack reported the fire was holding at three-quarters of an acre.
On day two a second load of four rappellers was sent to the fire. Below is an excerpt from the USFS timeline, and following that, the high-tech timeline:
“[On day two, July 13, the second load of four rappellers] were given a briefing, then loaded in the helicopter at 9 a.m. to fly the 20 minutes to the fire location. From the air, the fire appeared to have grown to about 10 acres overnight, with a few areas of isolated smoke columns. The crew noted the steep ground, the old burn scar and the fact the fire was burning mid-slope. They could see a lot of rollout (burning debris rolling below the main fire). Due to the remoteness of the area and the steep topography, the crew requested a few more orbits around the fire to gather more intelligence from the high vantage point.
“Upon landing, their perspective changed. “The ground was really, really steep. We know views from the air can be deceiving, but we couldn’t see the fire or the smoke from the helispot. I originally thought the trees below the helispot were reproduction from an old fire, but then I realized the slope was so steep I was only seeing the tree tops. They were actually 200 foot tall, 4-foot DBH (diameter at breast height) trees,” said a senior firefighter on the second load of rappellers.
“One rappeller began scouting for an escape route along the ridge to the north of the helispot, and found extremely dense vegetation with manzanita, tan oak and madrone, along with dead and downed logs. The ground was covered with madrone leaves that were slick – combined with the steep terrain, it made staying upright a challenge.
“At one point, I remember it taking me 30 minutes to move about 20 feet. 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,” he said. By the time he returned to the helispot, his pants (Nomex and Kevlar) were in tatters. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘It’s too steep, too dangerous in here.”
“After dropping off the rappellers, the rappel ship returned with the two crew bosses from the type 2 hand crews that had been requested the night before. While flying over the fire, assessing the terrain and helispot, and realizing there was not even a location for sling loads, let alone gear and 40 people, both crew bosses declined the assignment.
“With just eight firefighters on scene and the increased fire behavior, the IC was concerned that with fire on both the north and south sides of the drainage, the fire could make a direct run towards the helispot. Due to the fire behavior, rugged terrain, limited resources and no escape routes, the IC made the decision at 3:05 p.m. to elevate the fire to a type 3 IC.
“At 4:38 p.m. [on day two] all resources were off the fire, and at 5:35 p.m. the remaining helicopters were released back to their home units. The rappel helicopter returned at 6:18 p.m. with the Type 3 IC to do a reconnaissance flight. The type 3 IC assumed command of the Chetco Bar Fire at 6:57 p.m.”