Lawsuit filed to obtain documents about the Beachie Creek Fire in Oregon

Linn County requests records about the suppression of the fire

Beachie Creek Fire progression map
Beachie Creek Fire progression map. U.S. Forest Service map. Each line represents 24 hours of growth, but the map data begins on September 2, 2020 and does not show the preceding 18 days. It started in the black area.

A county in Oregon has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service that is related to the Beachie Creek Fire that burned over 193,000 acres east of Salem, Oregon in September.

The Davis Wright Tremain law firm in Portland submitted a request September 28 on behalf of Linn county, requesting records related to the fire. The request cited the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which requires a federal agency to respond within 20 business days, unless there are “unusual circumstances,” or notify the party of at least the agency’s determination of which of the requested records it will release, which it will withhold.

About 12 percent of the Fire was in Linn County, with the rest in Marion and Clackamas Counties. The Linn-Marion county line is near Highway 22 close to the communities of Lyons, Mill City, Gates, Detroit, and Idanha where many structures were destroyed.

The Forest Service replied to the FOIA in a letter dated the next day, saying (and this is an exact quote):

Please be advised your request is not perfected at this time and we will be reaching out to you to discuss clarification once it has been to thoroughly review.

After not receiving the documents or apparently hearing nothing further from the Forest Service, the attorneys for Linn County filed a lawsuit November 2, 2020 in the U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon.

Below is an excerpt from the complaint:

During its first few days, USFS officials attempted to extinguish the fire, which at that point was 10 to 20 acres, but could not effectively utilize traditional means because the fire was burning on the side of a steep, densely forested mountain…The Beachie Creek Fire thus continued to burn at a relatively small size for days but became a conflagration in early September as conditions became windy and dry, jumping to 200 acres on September 1, 2020, then growing to 500 acres after that. When a windstorm that had been predicted for at least one week prior hit Labor Day night, the Beachie Creek Fire exploded, torching ancient rainforests in the Opal Creek area and roaring down North Santiam Canyon. The fire destroyed the communities of Mill City and Gates, decimated thousands of structures and claimed at least five lives.

Beachie Creek Fire
Beachie Creek Fire August 27, 2020, eleven days after it started, before it grew very large on September 8. USFS photo.

The fire was reported August 16, 2020 in the Opal Creek Wilderness about six miles northwest of Detroit Lake in Oregon, about 38 miles east of Salem. According to records in the daily national Incident Management Situation Report and GIS data, the fire was:

–10 acres August 26, 10 days after it was reported;
–23 acres August 31, 15 days after it was reported;
–150 acres September 3, 18 days after it was reported;
–469 acres September 7, 22 days after it was reported; (just before the wind event that began that night).

From the Statesman Journal:

Forest Service officials told the Statesman Journal it tried to put out the fire during its first few days, and that fire crews dumped “a ton of water” on it. They said they couldn’t safely get firefighters in to extinguish the blaze on the ground, which at that point was 10 to 20 acres, because it was burning on the side of a steep, densely-forested mountain.

“You have deep duff, significant litter and a ladder fuel,” [Rick Stratton, a wildfire expert and analyst] said. “That’s why it doesn’t matter how much water you put on it, it can hold heat. You have to have people on the ground working right there, in an area that elite firefighters turned down twice.”

Firefighters worried about flaming debris coming down the mountain and being unable to escape. Firefighter safety has been emphasized since 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed in an Arizona wildfire.

Beachie Creek Fire progression map
Beachie Creek Fire progression map, zoomed in to the general area where it started. U.S. Forest Service map. Each line represents 24-hours of growth, but the map data begins on September 2, and does not show the preceding 18 days. It started in the black area. The legend is on the map at the top of the article.

A fixed wing mapping flight at 8:37 p.m. PDT September 9 found that in about 48 hours the fire had spread 25 miles to the northwest from its point of origin and had burned at that time 310,549 acres.

satellite photo fires smoke Washington, Oregon, and California
GOES-17 photo of smoke from wildfires in Washington, Oregon, and California at 5:56 p.m. PDT Sept. 8, 2020. The photo was taken during a very strong wind event.

Many fires started in Oregon around August 16 from lightning that moved through northern Californian into Oregon. Conventional wisdom is that the Beachie Creek Fire was a result of the this storm, although the Forest Service has not officially disclosed the cause. Complicating the issue is the reports that the gale force winds of September 7 and 8 caused multiple power lines to fail, starting additional fires which eventually burned into the Beachie Creek Fire.

This fire and others in Oregon, California, and Colorado were crying out for limited numbers firefighters, engines, helicopters, and air tankers but the fire suppression infrastructure available fell far short of the need. This meant that after the wind subsided, putting the huge blazes out quickly was not possible — without rain. Stopping a fire pushed by very strong winds is not possible, regardless of the air power or ground-based firefighting resources available.

Much of Oregon was also in severe to extreme drought along with Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado. This resulted in the moisture content of the vegetation (or fuel) being low, making it receptive to igniting and burning more quickly and intensely than if conditions were closer to average.

Well over 1,000 structures burned. Some of the communities that were hardest hit included Detroit, Mill City, Santiam River, and Gates.

The information Linn County requested from the Forest Service was about the agency’s policy for managing fires, and the Beachie Creek Fire in particular. Some examples:

  • Contracts and documents relating to arrangements made with outside contractors for firefighting equipment and training in the Pacific Northwest;
  • Maps and records depicting all former “owl circles” and all locations of other endangered species habitat in the 2 years immediately preceding the Beachie Creek Fire;
  • Records declaring the Beachie Creek Fire a Prescribed natural Fire, a Management Ignited Fire or a Wildfire, and all records discussing or relating to that declaration;
  • Records illustrating the Suppression Response for the Beachie Creek Fire;
  • Records illustrating the Control Strategy for the Beachie Creek Fire;
  • Records relating to inputs to and outputs derived from the FLAME computer program or any other predictive computer analysis for the Beachie Creek fire for the period commencing on August 1, 2020, through the date records responsive to this request are provided;
  • All Social media posts discussing or describing the Beachie Creek Fire;
  • All current Forest Service Manuals in effect immediately preceding the Beachie Creek Fire and effective throughout the Fire Event.

Below is a description of the fire written by the U.S. Forest Service and posted on InciWeb:

“The Beachie Creek Fire was first detected on August 16, 2020 approximately 2 miles south of Jaw Bones flats in rugged terrain deep in the Opal Creek Wilderness. A Type 3 team was ordered to manage the fire on the day it was detected and implemented a full suppression strategy. A hotshot crew tried to hike to the fire within the first 24 hours. They were unable to safely access and engage the fire due to the remote location, steep terrain, thick vegetation and overhead hazards. Fire managers continued to work on gaining access, developing trails, identify lookout locations, exploring options for access and opening up old road systems. The fire was aggressively attacked with helicopters dropping water. A large closure of the Opal Creek area and recreation sites in the Little North Fork corridor was immediately signed and implemented. The fire remained roughly 20 acres for the first week. On August 23rd, the Willamette National Forest ordered a National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) Team to develop a long-term management strategy. This is a high-caliber team which has capacity to do strategic planning. The fire grew slowly but consistently and was roughly 200 acres by September 1st, fueled by hot and dry conditions.

“At the beginning of September, a Type 2 Incident Management Team (PNW Team 13) assumed command of the fire. The fire size was estimated to be about 500 acres on September 6th. On that day, the National Weather Service placed Northwest Oregon under a critical fire weather warning due to the confluence of high temperatures, low humidity and rare summer easterly winds that were predicted to hit upwards of 35 mph in the Portland area on Labor Day. The unique wind event on September 7th created an extreme environment in which the fire was able to accelerate. The winds were 50-75 miles per hour, and the fire growth rate was about 2.77 acres per second in areas of the Beachie Creek fire. This allowed the fire to reach over 130,000 acres in one night. Evacuation levels in the Santiam Canyon area went directly to level 3, which calls for immediate evacuation. Additionally, PNW Team 13 was managing the Beachie Creek Fire from their Incident Command Post established in the community of Gates. That evening, a new fire start began at the Incident Command Post forcing immediate evacuation of the Team and fire personnel. From the night of September 7th, these fires became collectively known as the Santiam Fire. Ultimately, the Santiam Fire name reverted back to Beachie Creek Fire in order to reduce confusion for the communities in the area. The Incident Command Post was re-established in Salem at Chemeketa Community College. At the end of the wind event, the Lionshead Fire also merged with the Beachie Creek Fire having burned through the Mount Jefferson Wilderness.

“After the night of the wind event, the Beachie Creek Fire was managed under unified command by PNW Team 13 and the Oregon State Fire Marshal and the focus shifted to recovery and preservation of life and property. On September 17th, a Type 1 IMT (SW Team 2) assumed command of the fire. Growth on the fire slowed and the fire reached 190,000 acres. A second Type 1 team (PNW 3) took over command of the Beachie Creek Fire, along with the Riverside Fire to the north, on September 29th. Evacuation levels were lowered or removed as fire activity slowed. At the beginning of October, seasonal fall weather moved over the fire producing several inches of rain. During these weeks, a BAER (Burned Area Emergency Response) team assessed the burned landscape and habitats to try to evaluate damage. On October 8th, PNW Team 8, a Type 2 team took over management of the fire. Focus efforts on the ground shifted from suppression and mop-up to suppression repair. On October 14, the fire was downgraded and transitioned command to local Type 3 Southern Cascades team.  The acreage topped out at 193,573 acres. Closures remain in place to keep the public safe from hazards like falling trees and ash pits that can remain hot and smolder for months after the wildfire event.”

(end of excerpt)

Our take

The Forest Service is notorious for flagrantly violating the law in regards to the mandatory standards for providing information requested with a FOIA. They have been known to stall for years, or have simply refused to comply. Not every citizen seeking information from their government has a petty cash account with $400 for the filing fee, or the tens of thousands of dollars it could take to pay attorneys for a FOIA lawsuit. Our citizens deserve transparency. However, it also seems unusual to file a lawsuit approximately 26 business days, as Linn County did, after initially submitting the FOIA — just 6 days over the 20-day requirement.

An investigation should determine how much of an effect, if any, fires reportedly started by power lines had on the destruction of private property. It may turn out that some of the structures along the Highway 22 corridor were destroyed by fires sparked by power lines.

If, as appears to be the case, the suppression activity on the fire was less than aggressive for 22 days while it grew to 469 acres, it may have some similarities to the Chimney Tops 2 Fire that burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee from Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2016. After creeping along the ground on a hilltop for five days with no suppression activity except for some helicopter drops one afternoon, the 35-acre fire was pushed by strong winds into the city, causing the deaths of 14 people. Over 130 sustained injuries, and 1,684 structures were damaged or destroyed. Approximately 14,000 residents were forced to evacuate.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

12 thoughts on “Lawsuit filed to obtain documents about the Beachie Creek Fire in Oregon”

  1. All RIGHT, Irene! (Last Saturday night . . .)

    Utility companies are parasites in so many ways, and sooo arrogant.

    With respect to so-called “vegetation management,” the utilities could how to prune trees instead of hack. Hacked trees kill! They (everybody) should realize that soil disturbance = flash fuels.

  2. I recently retired from Oregon Dept. of Forestry after 26 years, ending up as a Fire Behavior Analyst on one of ODF’s Type 1 IMT’s. For the last 14 years of my career I worked on the North Cascade District in the Molalla Unit; our District Headquarters in Lyons burned to the ground from the Beachie Creek fire. I was an ICT3 on one of 4 fires in our Unit for 2 days Sept. 8 & 9 and then became the FBAN for the 4 fire complex in Clackamas County. These 4 fires were powerline fires caused by the east wind event. We also tried to support and assist when possible with the Riverside, Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires, all 3 megafires within our District Boundary. We also had to deal with evacuating our Molalla office on Thursday, Sept. 10th.
    First of all, yes, there were powerline fires in the Santiam canyon and the fire in the Beachie Interagency IMT fire camp that contributed to fire behavior on the south flank of Beachie. But there were also spot fires from Beachie in the Gates and Lyons area. I worked with one of the fire investigators. If Beachie had not been there, there would have been fires in the Santiam Canyon but they would not have traveled 25 miles and burned 193,000 acres. Firefighters would have stood a chance of protecting homes, towns and forests. Beachie is the main story. This fire was very similar to the Gatlinburg/Chimney Tops 2 fire. I was FBAN on the Party Rock fire in North Carolina when Gatlinburg burned. Like our Labor Day week wind event and firestorm, the Gatlinburg fire weather event was well predicted a few days in advance.
    Our District monitored the Beachie Creek fire when it was first discovered. There is a long history of fires, caused mainly from lightning, on the National Forests to our east that we have had to monitor or deal with because of late summer and early fall East Wind events. These East Wind events are not RARE as the Forest Service Inciweb report called them. They happen every year in late August, September and October. They can also occur any time of the year and have cause wildfires in January, March, April, May and November in recent years. The only time of the year that they are rare is midsummer. Here is a list of fires that we had to monitor and be involved with because of East Winds: B&B, Whitewater, Puzzle, Bingham Ridge and Lizard, Blister, Mother Lode. I worked all of these fires. And of course, 36 Pit and Eagle Creek were East Wind fires. The strength and duration of this Labor Day week East Wind event was much greater than normal, but in the fire business a prudent person has to be prepared for the abnormal. The Tillamook Burn, Hillockburn, Ladee Flats and the grandaddy of Oregon Fires the Silverton Fire of 1865 were all East Wind fires.
    The last point is related to Safety and Wilderness. I was Division Supervisor on the 28 acre Silver Falls Fire in Silver Falls State Park in 2018. It was a lightning holdover in July and had no road access. It was burning in old growth forest on a steep south aspect and there were numerous hazard trees that had survived the Silverton Fire. So, dead tops, dead trees, old fire scarred and hollow trees, deep duff, thick brush, no safety zones. Sound familiar? We worked the fire for 1 week and took care of it. The first day we had a very impressive air show with helicopters, air tankers and Seats. We opened up an old road system for tenders and a water show and had 2 falling modules cutting hazard trees. We monitored and patrolled it all summer, but it stayed put. Was it easy? No. Was it stressful? Yes. It took a lot of mitigation and coordination but nobody got hurt. I’ve asked myself if Beachie was on land that ODF was responsible for fire protection on, would we have managed it differently? Wilderness, safety, risk management…. It seems like something needs to change with the process of handling fire in Wilderness.

  3. What is taking a back seat on this issue is the increasing impact of transmission lines in creating wildfires. Idaho Power is an out of state, for profit utility wanting to build a 300 mile high voltage transmission line across 5 Eastern Oregon Counties which are prone to drought and high fire hazards. The company has refused requests from citizens, the counties and the local fire fighting groups to provide additional staffing and equipment if they are to be responsible for providing fire protection and fire fighting for this company without placing the local people at risk of being left unprotected. The company is of the opinion that a local fire crew is able to gather manpower, equipment, and travel up to 45 miles to fight a wildfire that they do not have the specialized equipment or training to safely extinguish. I spoke with a fire fighter who responded to a fire started at the Telecasette Wind Development in Union County. He described the terrain as steep, difficult to traverse and that they were hindered by high temperatures and trying to avoid the rattlesnakes who were being driven out of their dens by the fire. If utilities would take responsibility for maintaining their existing lines, and put their money toward upgrades to existing infrastructure, rather than pushing to get the guaranteed 6.7% profit for their stockholders that comes with building new lines, the citizens would not be victimized by the money grab that utilities like Idaho Power focuses on. These companies are in complete denial of the fact that the public is producing more and more of their own electricity through solar, battery storage, small water generators, and conservation efforts. They are in a race to build as many transmission lines as they possibly can in spite of the fact that energy usage in this state and country has been flat for the past 10 years. Companies like the Bend based one now building electric generators to place in municipal water supplies and the work on small nuclear power modules along with increased battery storage is making the utilities profit based model obsolete, but they are fighting the reality and leaving the consumers to foot the bill for their profiteering.

  4. Most major fires in the past 10-20 years have been directly attributed to “hazards to firefighters” due to remoteness, steep-rugged terrain, heavy fuels, and aerial hazards. I have no doubt those conditions exist, but wildland fires have been successfully suppressed in these same areas since at least the 1950s. Understandably fuels have been accumulating in the unmanaged wildland areas – both wilderness and general forest. This is particularly true of federally managed forest lands. Prior to the late 1990s not taking action on a wildland fire when detected at a small size because it was remote, steep, and rugged, or had hazardous fuels or aerial hazards was uncommon. I personally never encountered such a situation. Even the 177.000 acre Marblecone Fire in 1977 in the Ventana Wilderness of the Los Podres National Forest was aggressively suppressed and contained within the Wilderness Area in 3 weeks.

    Isn’t it interesting that until around 2000 the largest fire in California was the 220,000 acre Matilija Fire in 1932. It was not superseded until the Carr Fire in 2018 at 229,000 acres. And now the Carr Fire is the 12th largest wildland fire in California all of which have occurred since 2003. And the largest fire occurred just this season at an unbelievable million plus acres.

    Another interesting governmental manipulation is the fact that environmentalists can aggressively challenge forestry projects (mainly timber harvesting) and get reimbursed for their efforts. Contrast this with the stonewalling of information to entities that have suffered damages from potentially mismanaged wildland fires as mentioned in the article above. I have worked on a number of such law suits and current law (Federal Tort Claims Act – FTCA) technically requires the federal government to allow a law suit and requires a number of hoops to be negotiated. Look it up on the internet as I have somewhat over simplified it here.

    The Beachie Fire scenario and initial actions closely resemble those taken by the National Park Service (NPS) on the Chimney Peaks 2 fire on the Great Smokey NP which caused significant damage in Gatlinburg, TN. The lack of suppression action due to safety issues, the allowing the fire to spread over a five day period until the unusual “devil wind” occurred, and the complications as a result of downed power lines. The main factor to remember in both instances is something we have always known and that is “The best opportunity to prevent damage from wildland fires is to take the appropriate initial attack action to extinguish them quickly and minimize area burned.” We all know that this is not possible in all cases, but that is still the primary tactic.

    Between the safety emphasis and “putting fire back on the land – managed wildland fire” the size and damage resulting from wildland fire continues to escalate. And are we really that much safer than previously? And when following accepted procedures is working a wildland fire line any more dangerous than entering a burning building? People get hurt and even die in all types of occupations. Some jobs obviously are less risky and mistakes in judgement do not have the same or as severe consequences, but how about the statistics regarding driving to work or working from a ladder. This may sound like I am suggesting to ignore the hazards and that if some get hurt or even die it is just the cost of doing the job, but in my 30+ year career of on the ground fire fighting (including 7+ years as a smokejumper and 15+ years as an Incident Commander) no one died under my supervision. Some close calls and a few serious injuries, but no fatalities. Safety procedures have always been emphasized and practiced. Firefighting is a dangerous occupation that requires following accepted protocols and maintaining alertness.

    Last point – managed wildland fire. Just ask yourself – if the situation was not ignited would you ignite it? How many “managed fires” have burned onto private lands and/or destroyed private property? What is an acceptable result? How many prescribed fires have been failures even after a detailed environmental analysis and burn plans have been prepared and ignition was at the optimal location and time planned? How many prescribed fires have we conducted in what we consider “high fuel loads” as opposed to a “maintenance burn.” And how many “managed fires” in wilderness areas have crossed the wilderness boundary when the managed burn plan said that it wouldn’t or you would take action to contain it to the wilderness, but couldn’t.

    This is just a couple of the issues contributing to the increase in large, damaging fires in recent years. Obviously, the build up of fuels over the past 30 years due to lack of active forest management is a major factor – probably the key factor. As anyone who has managed forest land for profit or aesthetics knows it is impractical/unprofitable without fire protection, but as or more important is that you cannot protect vegetation resources without active vegetation management. And yes “prescribed fire” is an excellent management tool to maintain low fuel loadings and other benefits.

    1. Well said. In relation to the Marble Cone fire, the Soberanes fire burned through the same footprint and took 8+ weeks to contain. With many, many more resources. Why is that? Just one of many examples where it’s taking longer and longer to contain large fires with a large amount of resources compared to 30-40+ years ago. I think some of that is the emphasis on hazards to firefighters like you mentioned. Wildland firefighter fatalities from burnovers are caused by indirect firefighting. In general, direct firefighting, especially on IA, is the most successful way of keeping a fire small. I have witnessed over and over again endless retardant and water drops where no ground firefighters are engaging. This is unacceptable, and puts all the risk on aircraft. We can stop all aircraft accidents if we don’t fly, just as we can stop all firefighter fatalities if we don’t fight fire. It takes everyone engaging aggressively (having provided for safety first) to contain a wildland fire. Of course that’s why we have so much fuel build up over the last 100 years, and that has a lot to do with why some fires are so big, but when the objective is to contain the fire, hit it hard. Send aircraft right away instead of waiting until the first unit gets on scene. Yes, there are going to be the occasional “too steep and hazardous to put people in there” fires, but we have smart people out there with a lot of experience to figure out a way to contain those as soon as possible. 10 and 18 everyone!

  5. The North Complex fire on the Plumas NF sounds exactly the same management situation as the Beachie Creek Fire. On the North Complex they were dealing with a fire threatening the town of Quincy, CA and they had a small fire in extreme terrain that smoke jumpers tried to access but were unsuccessful. The smaller fire languished for several days and the blew up burning almost 300,000 acres and destroying over 2200 structures.

    Someone needs to be held responsible for this tragedy. It is not the Forest Service I worked for from 1961 to 2000.

    William M. Andersen – Forest Service retiree.

  6. The USFS is a shell of what it was just 20 years ago. Self serving and disgusting and seemingly outside of Congressional control.
    If the Governor’s of the Western States don’t have the backbones to bring about common sense changes to the FS fire fighting policies, then I TOTALLY APPROVE OF THE USE OF LAWSUITS TO BRING ABOUT THIS CHANGE IN POLICY!

    Come on all you Sheep, stand up and FIGHT !
    These lands they are burning belong to you, not them !

  7. When I read about the Beachie Fire I thought to myself sounds like the Donnell’s Fire 2018, another Forest Service blunder on initial attack. I recently traveled through the Donnell’s burn and it is devastating to see. I don’t buy the deep duff and steep terrain story. As a wildland fire fighter, have you ever stood on a fire near a copter dropping 1500 gallons of water? The term washing it off the mountain comes to mind. Not the best tactic but on several fires in my career it worked. If you don’t heed Mother Natures intent she will burn you ever time!

  8. The Stanislaus Nat. Forest in California has a history of delayed, and meager initial attack on both natural or man caused fires. The Rim fire of 2013 and the Donnell fire of 2018 are two major examples. Delayed, half hearted initial attack resulting in huge fires that caused severe resource damage to forest lands and the destruction of dozens of modern and historic buildings and businesses. In both cases fires started on USFS ground within obvious proximity to private property featuring residential and commercial development. For at least the the first 24 hours ( and multiple days in the Donnell case) neither fire was aggressively attacked, thereby allowing them to become well established and threatening to private property. The Beachie Creek scenario sounds most similar to the USFS Donnell fire response here on the Stanislaus. In both cases, to this legal lay person, their lack of action looks like willful criminal negligence.


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