Community near Heppner, Oregon first in Morrow County to earn Firewise designation

A bolt of lightning struck a tree just outside Bruce Wilcox’s home in Morrow County, Oregon last year, sending shards of wood flying 40 yards away. “It didn’t start a fire,” he said. “It just hit that tree and went to ground. But we were lucky.” Lightning-ignited fires are common in north-central Oregon, and Wilcox lives about 16 miles south of Heppner — home to the nearest fire department. Wilcox is helping his community, known locally as Blake Ranch, become the county’s first to join Firewise USA. He told Oregon Public Broadcasting that the Firewise program could be the key to protecting nearby homes from the next big wildfire.

FIREWISEFirewise is sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) manages the program at the state level. Through training and local fire prevention projects, Firewise encourages property owners to take proactive measures to prevent fires from destroying their homes and businesses. Many of Oregon’s small and isolated communities have achieved Firewise designation.

Jessica Prakke with ODF said these sparsely populated communities are among the target areas for the state. “We’re definitely trying to reach those smaller communities that are in the wildland/urban interface, because they can be the most susceptible to wildfire.”

In Blake Ranch, Wilcox contacted ODF after he read about a community in northeast Oregon’s Wallowa County that was participating. Since then, ODF has sent foresters to assess Blake Ranch properties for fire readiness, and some residents have taken a wildfire prevention class. Prakke said ODF doesn’t usually initiate the process of turning communities into Firewise sites, because the agency needs community buy-in to make the program work. Wilcox noted that some local residents are a little skeptical — they suspect the program might require them to remove trees they want to keep. But Wilcox thinks they’ll come around.

Morrow County FIREWISE

The Firewise program has an interactive map on the NFPA website with details about designated sites and their locations across the country, and it’s interesting to compare locations with known fire-danger areas. There’s a cluster of sites, for example, north of Paradise in northern California. One of the sites, Falcons Pointe Drive, is near Upper Bidwell Park in Chico. That community’s participation in the Firewise program began in September of 2022.

FIREWISE map

There are very few sites in Nevada and zero in North Dakota; about half of Colorado’s map is covered with little Firewise icons. While Oregon’s west side is not really known for severe wildfires, that side of the state surely proved the exception over the last few years, and it’s crowded with Firewise sites, while the east side of Oregon, no stranger to major fires, has only a few. Blake Ranch was just added to the list in December, and the numbers grow as people learn about neighborhoods and towns devastated by wildfires.

“The number of conversations I have had since Paradise has skyrocketed,” said Chris Chambers, Forest Division Chief in Ashland, Oregon. Residents and local officials in and around Ashland tend to be a little more fire-savvy than in many areas; they have a history with interface fires. Jefferson Public Radio reported, about a year after wildfire leveled the town of Paradise, that Chambers spoke to a throng of people at a sold-out screening of the documentary Fire In Paradise at a theater in downtown Ashland, just north of the California state line. Although the Camp Fire was more than 200 miles south, Chambers says it alarmed Ashland residents;  it’s a small, woodsy town that, like Paradise, is tucked into forest.

“People have really become concerned,” Chambers said. “I just hope that translates into lasting awareness in the sense that people take responsibility for the condition of their property.”

Hiker owes $300,000 for Arizona wildfire he started

There’s yet another dumb hiker in the news for starting a wildfire to signal rescuers after he got lost. Philip Powers, a resident of Tempe, Arizona, argued in court that the fire he set in 2018 was necessary to save his life. But a federal court found that he was so unprepared that he created his own emergency.

Backpacker Magazine reported that the 37-year-old hiker in the rugged Sycamore Canyon Wilderness northwest of Sedona, in late May 2018, had barely slept and had muscle cramps in his legs. He’d also found a rattlesnake in the sheepherder shack where he’d overnighted. It was 14 miles back to his car, he was out of food and water, and he had no cell signal. Powers later told a USFS law enforcement officer that he feared he was “done.”

2018 Sycamore Fire in Arizona, looking north. USFS photo.
2018 Sycamore Fire in Arizona, looking north. USFS photo.

He’d tried the night before to start a signal fire, but it quickly burned out. He tried again, piling dry foliage around the base of a snag and firing it up with his Bic lighter. He hoped that the dead tree would go up in flames, and someone would see it and come to his rescue. But the fire got away, tripled in size in one day, and quickly grew to 230 acres; the Sycamore Fire took over a week to contain. A federal district court recently convicted him for his actions in 2018, and Powers now owes the feds almost $300,000 in restitution — and a year of probation.

Fronteras Desk reported that Judge Camille Bibles didn’t buy the hiker’s excuses. “Had Powers engaged in adequate preparation in planning and carried adequate water, food and gear, he would not have found himself in his circumstances,” she wrote. “Thus, the court finds that Powers’ necessity defense fails, as he created the conditions necessitating the commission of the fires, and his subsequent rescue.”

Powers faced 3½ years in prison for the seven misdemeanors he was charged with. Judge Bibles sentenced him to seven concurrent one-year probation periods instead. He also owes the Forest Service more than $293,000 in restitution, which he will make in $200 monthly payments.

In addition, the judge ordered Powers to complete a hiking safety course.

According to 12News in Arizona, he’s already filed an appeal of his conviction.

Why Idaho’s Silver Valley is forested again

Ed Pommerening, 1947-2022
by Jim Petersen, Editor, The Evergreen Foundation

When Ed Pommerening died last Christmas Eve in Kellogg, Idaho he left a forestry legacy that is unmatched in Idaho history. I grew up in Kellogg and knew Ed mostly by reputation. We last talked by phone in 1996. I was in the middle manuscripts for an Evergreen edition featuring forests and forestry in Idaho and I wanted to include a short story about the miraculous rebirth of forests on the barren hills of my youth.

Ed is the reason Idaho’s Silver Valley between Smelterville and Big Creek is covered with countless thousands of conifers, many of them 50 feet tall. It is a stunning tribute to the dogged determination of a young man who once told me that the Kellogg he saw for the first time in 1972 reminded him of the godawful agent orange devastation he’d seen while serving with the 101st Airborne Rangers in South Vietnam.

That young man was Ed Pommerening. He was coming to Kellogg then to begin work as the Bunker Hill Company’s first forester. “Uncle Bunker” was by far Idaho’s largest industrial employer, the Union Pacific Railroad’s largest customer by tonnage, and the largest power consumer in the entire Washington Water Power system. At one time, Bunker Hill was the largest mining and smelting company in North America. It supplied most the lead we threw at the Germans and Japanese during the Second World War.

I worked my way through college in company stopes a mile beneath the streets of Kellogg. It was dangerous as hell — but great fun. I have no idea what convinced Ed that he could turn the Silver Valley’s barren hills green again — or how he convinced the company to invest in the crazy idea that he could grow countless thousands of seedlings 3,000 feet down in the mine, but in August 1975 company carpenters built Ed’s first 40-foot long underground greenhouse. One of my late father’s plumbing crews ran the water lines.

The scale of Ed’s thinking was breathtaking but the idea was not new. Many miners grew vegetables in pots in pitch black drifts with only the illumination of a single lightbulb. The air temperature was a constant 72 degrees, so all you had to add was some soil, water from a nearby drill line, a little light, and voila! It certainly helped that Ed had earned two forestry degrees from the University of Idaho. His connections would prove invaluable after his first seedlings died soon after they were transplanted on treeless hills by high school kids and civic groups.

The same thing had happened to seedlings my Cub Scout pack planted in Vergobbi Gulch in the 1950s. We never knew why, but soil scientists at the University of Idaho figured out that sulfur dioxide gas released from stacks at the Bunker smelter had polluted the soil. Acid was killing the seedlings. The solution: plant them deeper and add a dash of neutralizing potash for good measure. The beautiful result graces both sides of Interstate 90 between Smelterville and Big Creek:  Ponderosa, Scotch and Austrian pine, Douglas-fir, western larch, western white pine, blue spruce, willow, and poplar.

The homesteader’s apple orchard behind our home on Mission Avenue has given way to a sea of green that turns to gold in the fall. Words seem inadequate.

A very good case can be made for the fact that the Silver Mountain Resort and Ski Area and its legendary gondola are prospering today because of Ed Pommerening’s modesty and quiet determination. Small wonder that his forestry consulting business, Riverview Timber Services, thrived for decades.

The Kellogg where I grew up is long gone: the smelter whistles that announced shift changes, the friends I made underground, Al Laramie at the piano on Friday nights at the old Sunshine Inn, and the vibrancy of Kellogg’s booming economy. We thought Bunker would go on forever. For better or worse, it didn’t. The end came in 1981. Labor strife and unattainable federal air and water quality standards were the main reasons. But Ed’s vision provided the catalyst for Kellogg’s rebirth.

The power of forestry turned the barren hills of my youth green again and my hometown has a future. There is a bronze statue of a miner at the corner of Main and McKinley Avenue in uptown Kellogg. There needs to be one of Ed standing beside him.

~ Jim Petersen, Editor
EvergreenMagazine.com


WATCH THE VIDEO:
The Reforestation of Silver Valley is a fascinating story told by Ed Pommerening and others about an industry that took the initiative to solve a major environmental problem in northern Idaho. The video was funded by the Kootenai-Shoshone County Farm Bureau and Idaho Farm Bureau and was produced by Matthew Bane. Watch it [HERE].

 

To thin or not to thin … it’s really not a question

The largest wildfires in the West — often called mega-fires — have increased in both size and number in recent years. The fire season — in both length and severity — increases nearly annually. Severe wildfire — classed in various ways but often as fire that kills most of the trees in its path — has by some reports increased eightfold in 30 years.

Fire science and experience over decades of research and field practice have settled on a major prevention tool: fuels reduction. This term includes both thinning (mechanical removal of shrubs and mostly small trees) and prescribed burning (intentional introduction of fire under favorable conditions).

A recent issue of High Country News features a report by Emily Shepherd, a freelance writer who worked in wildlife conservation for eight years, followed by two years as a U.S. Forest Service hotshot. She explains that wildfire ecologists almost universally support fuels reduction, especially in forests that had previously flourished under frequent ground fires — such as the ponderosa pine forests of Arizona and the Southwest.

While there’s no serious cohort of scientific dissent, forest managers still struggle to put their fuels reduction knowledge and goals into practice. “Forest thinning” is the target of prolific misinformation from groups ranging from the simply uninformed to the nationally well-funded (and well lawyered up), while locals in the area where prescribed fire is planned often see rxfires as just a nuisance or annoyance. A cacophony of opinions based more on language than on science.To its opponents, thinning is a form of “silviculture by stealth,” as wildfire historian Stephen Pyne puts it; he says thinning is more like “woody weeding.” Logging harvests large, mature trees over large areas, he explains, while thinning mostly removes small trees. Logging makes money; thinning almost always costs money.

Thinning should be followed by prescribed fire. “If you don’t follow it up with the right fire, then it’s worthless,” says Pyne, “and in many cases may have made it worse.” Thinning and prescribed burning are the one-two punch that can knock out severe wildfires. Like everything, prescribed fires do have drawbacks: They are complicated to plan and execute, they dump unwanted smoke on nearby communities, they’re subject to litigation, and in rare instances they can ignite destructive burns or even get agency staff arrested.

“We conduct an average of 4,500 prescribed fire projects annually,” said USFS Chief Randy Moore in the spring of 2022, “and 99.84 percent go according to plan. That equals slightly more than one escape per every 1,000 prescribed fires, or about six escapes per year.”

As long as terms like “thinning” are used and abused by non-scientific groups with a bias, though, there will always be conflict. A report by Oregon Public Broadcasting not long ago was headlined “A southern Oregon conservationist’s wishlist for better collaboration with the BLM” in which Roman Battaglia, a reporter with Ashland-based Jefferson Public Radio, interviewed Luke Ruediger, executive director of Applegate Siskiyou Alliance, about the Medford area BLM’s latest forest management plan, known as the Integrated Vegetation Management Plan. “A lot of the problem that we see is that increasingly the federal government and federal land managers are not making that effort to communicate and collaborate or even to share basic information on federal land management projects with the public,” said Ruediger. “And that’s leading to a lot of issues surrounding trust.”

“It’s also creating a lot of situations where, essentially, the BLM is operating in secret and refusing to provide information on the projects that they’re designing on federal lands to the public that those projects would affect,” claimed Ruediger.

Opponents of thinning and other fuels treatment methods really need to take a look at the history of Lick Creek in Montana. The Lick Creek Demonstration – Research Forest studies were established back in 1991 in western Montana to evaluate tradeoffs among alternative cutting and burning strategies aimed at reducing fuels and moderating forest fire behavior while restoring historical stand structures and species compositions.

Lick Creek Montana fuels projects

Firefighters and numerous studies over many years credit intensive forest thinning projects with helping save communities like those recently threatened near Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada, but dissent from some environmental advocacy groups still roils the scientific/environmental community. An Associated Press story out of Sacramento in October of 2021 noted that environmental advocates say data from recent gigantic wildfires support their long-running assertion that efforts to slow wildfires have instead accelerated their spread. “Not only did tens of thousands of acres of recent thinning, fuel breaks, and other forest management fail to stop or slow the fire’s rapid spread, but … the fire often moved fastest through such areas,” Los Padres ForestWatch, a California-based nonprofit, said in an analysis joined by the John Muir Project and Wild Heritage advocacy groups.

But James Johnston, a researcher with Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, called the groups’ conclusions “pretty misleading,” “irresponsible” and “self-contradicting.”

“Claims that modern fuel-reduction thinning makes fire worse are not credible,” Johnston said.

Chad Hanson is an ecologist with the John Muir Project and the author of Smokescreen: Debunking Wildfire Myths to Save Our Forests and Our Climate. “Wildfires can always turn tragic,” says Hanson, “but the greater tragedy in Greenville and Paradise, which was largely destroyed during the 2018 Camp Fire, and other towns is that they put their faith in logging operations miles away rather than proven, community-based fire prevention measures. Forest thinning is gaining more media attention and is heavily promoted by some land management agencies and logging interests, but science suggests the technique more often makes fires burn hotter and faster. The idea of felling trees and hauling them to lumber mills in the name of fire prevention has many deceptive names: fuel reduction, forest health, ecological restoration, thinning, and even reforestation.”

KGW-8 News reported on Johnston’s work with OSU, writing that the forestry sciences community forecasts massive wildfires like the ones that burned in Oregon last year will only get bigger and more severe. However, new research suggests that thinning the forests can go a long way toward preventing severe fires.  [ related: video ]

“This study shows that fuel reduction thinning to moderate fire behavior … works,” said Johnston. His research focused on a ponderosa forest in northeast Oregon, where his team compared thinned stands of trees with un-thinned control stands and then used computer modeling to predict the behavior of future fires. “Most fuel reduction projects in eastern Oregon thin from below and cut down the smaller trees and leave the old large fire-resistant trees,” Johnston said. “That leaves behind a forest that’s less dense, and our studies show it has a less far less fuel to burn in future fires.”

Johnston said the result is even better when prescribed burning is added. “The only way to fight fire is with more fire,” he said.

It’s easy to see why the influenceable public can become confused, with a wide range of communications and opinions about complex forest and fire management topics. But two rural Josephine County communities are working with federal fire managers, according to a report by KDRV-TV, to improve wildfire resilience in southern Oregon. The BLM recently issued its “decision to promote safe wildfire response, develop fire-resilient lands, and create habitat for special status species” for a project near the communities of Murphy and Williams, both south of Grants Pass.

The BLM project is called Late Mungers Integrated Vegetation Management Project. It includes prescribed fire, fuels thinning and selective harvest phases; over the next 10 years the BLM expects fuels reduction work on about 7,500 acres under this project.

Fire managers plan to start at strategic locations where firefighters have the best chance to catch and contain wildfires. The project also includes 830 acres of proposed harvests split into two timber sales: Late Mungers and Penn Butte. “By using selection harvest methods, these treatments will increase the diversity of the forest stands,” according to the BLM. “This more complex habitat is important for the northern spotted owl, the marbled murrelet and Pacific marten (federally listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act), as well as other special-status species.”

During the project’s public comment period, the BLM collected more than 100 comments, and the project team hosted a field trip to the project area and held a public webinar to collect further input about the project. The final document, including BLM’s response to comments, is online at eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/2018484/510 and there’s a detailed PDF map online [HERE].

“Forests in Southwest Oregon are in dire need of active management to maintain and improve forest health,” said BLM District Manager Elizabeth Burghard in Medford. “The Late Mungers project is an important step toward promoting and developing complex forest habitats for the northern spotted owl and other sensitive species. This project will make the landscape, including legacy trees, more resilient to wildfire by addressing hazardous wildfire fuels near local communities.”

 

Lytton wildfire survivors want their lawsuit certified as a class action in British Columbia

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Two survivors of a wildfire that destroyed much of Lytton, B.C. in the summer of 2021 say their lawsuit should be certified as a class action. The chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court will decide whether the case, initially filed in October of 2021 by two residents who lost their homes, has a broader scope.

CBC News reported that on the hottest day of 2021, a fire in the Fraser Canyon burned more than 800 square kilometers, killed two people, and destroyed much of the village. Investigators found no evidence that a passing train caused the fire, but the lawsuit claims the fire was started by either a Canadian National or Canadian Pacific train on its way through the village. According to the Calgary Sun, lawyers for Christopher O’Connor and Jordan Spinks, the two representative plaintiffs in the case, argued in court that the fire was ignited as a result of a coal train owned by Canadian Pacific Railway passing through the village on June 30, 2021. Spinks is a member of the Kanaka Bar Indian Band and has said that he witnessed smoke and flames on CN Rail’s right of way, at or near CN Rail’s bridge that crosses the Fraser River. He had just finished his shift as a care aide at an assisted-living facility and lost his job as a result of the fire. O’Connor, a resident of Lytton, lost his home in the fire and had his vehicle damaged.

The railway companies deny any responsibility for the fire and cite a report by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada that concludes there was no link between train operations and the fire. But Tony Vecchio, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the report was deficient in a number of respects and should not be relied upon.

“They didn’t have any basis to make this finding at all, on their own evidence,” Vecchio told B.C. Supreme Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson. He pointed out errors in the report, including the number of railway cars on the train, and said investigators failed to interview a number of witnesses.

The British Columbia Wildfire Service said that in 2021 between April 1 and September 30, 1,610 wildfires had burned 868,203 hectares (2.145 million acres) across British Columbia. Moody’s RMS reported those numbers were in stark contrast to 2019 and 2020 when the total area burned in the province was less than 25,000 hectares (61,776 acres) per season.

On Sunday, June 27, the temperature in Lytton reached 46.6°C (116°F). On Monday it reached 47.7°C (118°F). And then on Tuesday, June 29, Lytton recorded the highest-ever temperature in Canada: 49.4°C (121°F). Extended drought conditions held through April and into June, meaning many areas were already on extreme fire hazard ratings when on June 29, 2021, the small town of Lytton made it into the record books for the third time in three days.

The Guardian has a photo essay of the Lytton fire online.

Two California counties sue PG&E over Mosquito Fire

A lawsuit was filed January 18 against Pacific Gas & Electric Co. by El Dorado County and Placer County seeking damages related to the 2022 Mosquito Fire, which burned almost 77,000 acres over 50 days in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The two counties, along with the El Dorado Water Agency, Georgetown Divide Public Utilities District, and Georgetown Divide Fire Protection District, filed the lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court. The fire burned mostly on the Tahoe and El Dorado National Forests and caused evacuations of more than 11,000 people.

Mosquito Fire 09-13-22
An airtanker makes a retardant run over the Mosquito Fire after it jumped the American River and headed north toward Foresthill, California.   09-13-22 Inciweb photo.

The suit alleges that PG&E’s equipment caused the fire, which started on September 6 near the community of Foresthill, according to a report by CBS News.

“The lawsuit seeks to hold PG&E accountable and to help our community rebuild after this devastating fire,” said El Dorado County counsel David Livingston. The Mosquito Fire started near the Oxbow Reservoir at the Middle Fork American River, according to the Sacramento Bee, and it destroyed 78 structures, including dozens of homes in the Placer County community of Michigan Bluff and the El Dorado County town of Volcanoville. It was not contained till October 27.

Mosquito Fire Day #2
Extreme fire behavior on the second day produces a large column of smoke visible from Foresthill, California.
09-08-22 Inciweb photo

The county filed the lawsuit one day before PG&E officials were scheduled to appear in Shasta County Superior Court for a criminal case related to the 2020 Zogg Fire, which killed four people and which Cal Fire investigators have blamed on PG&E equipment. Shasta County prosecutors charged PG&E with four counts of involuntary manslaughter; the utility company in June pleaded not guilty.

The Mosquito Fire lawsuit follows a legal settlement earlier this week in which 10 public entities agreed to $24 million from PG&E for damages caused by the 2021 Dixie Fire, which started July 13 and burned over 963,300 acres across Plumas, Lassen, Butte, Shasta, and Tehama counties. Plaintiffs include the five counties, along with the City of Susanville, Plumas District Hospital, Chester Public Utility District, Honey Lake Valley Recreation Authority, and Herlong Public Utility District.

“Local government across the five affected counties came together to recover these significant funds to reimburse public and natural resources lost in the fire,” Gretchen Stuhr with Plumas County told The Plumas News. “The allocated portion of the settlement proceeds will in no way make the entities whole following the devastation caused by the Dixie and Fly Fires but will assist the County in its recovery.”