By Hillary Brown/KTVL.com
SELMA, Ore. ― Selma is a small spot on Oregon’s map, an unincorporated town nestled among the hills of the Illinois Valley. On any given day, there isn’t a lot going on in Selma, but folks there find plenty to talk about.
Inside a tidy restaurant, just before the unofficial town line, you’ll find old-timers lined up along the counter and sitting at tables. Ten years later, they still talk about the Biscuit Fire.
The Biscuit Fire started as a series of small fires that were sparked during three days of lightning storms. According to the U.S. Forest Service, 12,000 lightning strikes were reported in the Illinois Valley between July 12 and July 15, 2002. About 375 fire starts were reported following the lightning, five of which eventually joined to become the Biscuit Complex.
The numbers presented by the U.S. Forest Service in the aftermath of the Biscuit Fire paint a dramatic picture of Oregon’s largest wildfire in more than a century, but it’s the stories told by the people who lived through it that really describe how the flames became a part of local folklore.
If you go into Selma’s restaurant and ask to speak with someone about the Biscuit Fire, they’ll tell you to talk to Joe. “Joe” is Captain Joe Feldhaus with the Illinois Valley Fire District. Feldhaus is animated, with a penchant for talking quickly and using his hands to punctuate his lively stories. He was working for the Illinois Valley Fire District when the Biscuit Fire started and is willing to share his stories with anyone who asks.
“It was the first time I’d ever been a firefighter and a refugee at the same time,” he said on a hot, sunny day, not unlike the one before the Biscuit started. “I could tell by looking at it that it was going to be a beast.”
The U.S. Forest Service report said a red flag warning was issued on July 12, 2002 when dry lightning was forecast in Josephine, Jackson, Douglas, Klamath and Lake counties in Oregon and Shasta, Siskiyou and Modoc counties in California. Temperatures were hovering near the 100 degree mark and fire indices were well above normal.
On July 13, 2002, two fires were reported in or near the Kalmiopsis wilderness. Those fires were the Biscuit 1 and the Carter. Within 24 hours, three other fires, known as the Biscuit 2, Sourdough and the Florence, were also reported.
By July 17, the fires had all expanded to the point that fire experts combined them administratively for the purposes of fighting them and requesting resources.
It was now the Biscuit Complex.
In the towns dotting highway 199 in the Illinois Valley, residents were watching the flames.
Illinois Valley Fire District Capt. Tom Zulliger was working at a mill when the Biscuit fire started making its way closer to town lines.
“I remember one day being at work and I was working the filing room and somebody came in and said, ‘Hey, look. Tom, look.’ I looked out the door and there was just a huge column. A huge column coming up.”
Zulliger is tall, sturdy and quiet, the opposite in both stature and manner from his friend and co-worker, Capt. Joe Feldhaus. That’s who he called after he saw the smoke.
“The fire had been going for a few days and I got a call from Tom asking if I’d seen the smoke column that day and I said, ‘No,’” Feldhaus remembered. “He said, ‘Well, you better.’ So I went out and took a look and it only took me a second to come back in and ask the chief at the time if he had a plan. He said, ‘I don’t think it will get here.’ I said, ‘You better have a plan. This thing is coming.’”
Flames expanded from 2,000 acres on July 17 to over 3,500 acres by July 20, according to the Forest Service. The quick growth and advancement toward towns placed the Biscuit Fire higher on the priority list and firefighting resources started to arrive. Five crews, two engines, two dozers and four helicopters were assigned to the fires.
Cassandra Humphfres is a Selma resident and a volunteer firefighter. She was among the dozens who would gather at the Selma store to get updates on the fires.
“I remember looking towards the Illinois River Road and actually watching it plume and drop and then watching the black smoke,” Humphfres said. “I remember hearing and going, ‘Oh, there goes McCaleb Ranch.’”
The ranch was one of four residences and ten structures that were eventually scorched by the flames.
Humphfres went from getting the updates at the store to giving the updates from the fire lines. The volunteer firefighter was named the public information officer. The role put her on the front lines where she watched fire crews from across the country and, eventually around the world, move in and out.
“There were a lot of tired people,” she said.MENACING AND TERRIFYING
By July 27, 2002, the Biscuit Complex had grown to more than 200,000 acres. That afternoon, the Forest Service reported the fires became “explosive.”
Josephine County activated its Emergency Operations Center and evacuation notices were issued for the entire Illinois Valley. Oregon’s governor invoked the conflagration act to mobilize structural firefighters and equipment from around the state. That’s also when the fire crossed the border into California.
Captains Feldhaus and Zulliger, along with their co-workers, were busy going door to door and evaluating homes in the area. Their goal was to figure out which homes could be saved if flames invaded the valley. They were also putting residents on alert.
“You could look to the west and see flames coming at you,” remembered Feldhaus.
Some residents vowed to stay at their homes, despite the smoke and flames. Others were already prepared to leave.
“I remember one woman who was throwing her stuff in her car and she was getting out of there. I mean, we told her ‘You don’t have to leave now’… she was just scared,” said Zulliger.
Much like the firefighters who gathered at camps and command posts, residents continued gathering at the Selma store. Eventually, meetings were organized at Illinois Valley High School. But even those meetings, which were meant to provide information and comfort to residents, were haunted by the spectre of the smoke and flames.
Zulliger was at one meeting where the images outside added weight to the information being passed along inside.
“There was a huge column of smoke coming from the mountains over the northwest. It was something like you’d see out of The Wizard of Oz. It was just menacing and terrifying and I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.”
In the end, fire crews built lines that protected towns and most residents were spared the stress and trauma of evacuating from their homes. MAKING A COMEBACK
The Biscuit Fire was declared 100 percent contained on Sept. 5, 2002. Thousands of firefighters continued to work on the fire over the next two months until it was declared controlled on Nov. 11, 2002.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, the Biscuit Fire burned 499,570 acres and cost $154.9 million to fight.
It’s not the numbers, though, that people in the Illinois Valley talk about ten years later. Instead, they focus on the awesomeness of the disaster and the potential for something like it to happen again.
“I should have been shaken, I mean, with the size of the thing,” Feldhaus said as he reflected on the power of the fire and its proximity to his home and his town. “I just, for whatever reason, never believed… that it was going to get there.”
Zulliger believes, after the Biscuit Fire, he’s seen it all in the Illinois Valley.
“The only thing I’m not likely to see is a ship wreck or a train wreck,” he said. “It’s been ten years. It will happen again. Maybe not in the same area, but it will burn again.”
After all this time, Humphfres can still see the fire.
"It comes back," she said. "I see the smoke. I see the fires, remembering the awesome glow of the mountainside in the middle of the night, never going out."
But in all that destruction, she sees something else.
“I see the new growth. The land is repairing itself and healing itself and trying to come back.”ONLINEGeneral Accounting Office Report on the Biscuit Complex FireBiscuit Fire from SpaceInteractive Biscuit Fire Maps