By Hillary Brown/KTVL.com
SELMA, Ore.― The summer of 2002 presented the perfect storm of circumstances for the blaze that would become known as the Biscuit Fire.
That summer, flames scorched nearly 500,000 acres, burned four homes and left an indelible mark on communities throughout the Illinois Valley.
Illinois Valley Fire District Captain Tom Zulliger worked the Biscuit Fire. Looking at the scorched hills of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, he can remember the lightning strikes that sparked the fires, as well as the actions that sparked controversy.
“I don’t know what they were thinking. I know what they did,” Zulliger said as he spoke about the U.S. Forest Service’s response to the flames. “They didn’t take action on it for awhile.”
At the time it burned, the Biscuit Fire was Oregon’s largest and most expensive wildfire in recent history. Controlling the flames took nearly two months and efforts to extinguish it completely lasted through the remainder of 2002.
Five fires combined to create the Biscuit Complex. The first of the five was sparked when a line of dry lightning storms moved through Northern California and Southern Oregon beginning July 12, 2002. There were 12,000 strikes over the course of three days, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The strikes started 375 small fires. The lightning added fuel to growing concerns that had already been fanned by increasing temperatures and a lack of resources.
“Two thousand two was another huge fire season in the southwest and Rocky Mountain area, so a lot of our local resources had been deployed to those areas,” said Paul Galloway of the U.S. Forest Service. “This is remote country. The burning conditions were at the extreme level.”
Following the Biscuit Fire, Oregon representatives Greg Walden, Peter DeFazio and Scott McInnis requested a review of the reaction to the natural disaster. The U.S. General Accounting Office did an investigation into the fire response, resource availability and personnel certification standards. The goal of the report was to determine whether fire management had reacted appropriately to the fire and whether the mass burn could have been prevented.
The first two fires that would become part of the Biscuit were the Carter Fire and Biscuit 1. Crews were able to contain the Carter fire, according to the Forest Service. By the time crews were able to get to the Biscuit 1, daylight was running out and access was an issue.
Fire managers decided to let it burn.
The next day -- July 13 -- three more fires were identified. All of those fires were in rugged areas and weren’t threatening homes. Again, the decision was made to let them burn and to use the limited resources available on other fires.
It’s a move Illinois Valley Fire District Captain Joe Feldhaus understood.
“It was in the middle of an area that hadn’t burned in quite awhile, out in the wilderness,” he said. “Then, once it got its steam, there were other fires that needed attention, so it did not get the resources that it would have initially.”
The GAO report revealed the first 24 hours of a fire attack are crucial to getting flames under control. Ninety-nine percent of fires aggressively fought in that time frame are extinguished. Galloway agreed with that analysis, but said there was more at play with the Biscuit fires.
“The other fires were less accessible. By the time we got there, with the resources that we had, they wouldn’t have been successful. So we need to assess that, as far as safety for our firefighters and staff, are we putting them in a situation where, one, they can’t be successful and, two, they’re dealing with some pretty extreme fire behavior with limited safety zones and escape routes. Why would you do that?”CALLS FOR HELP
Many people questioned the Forest Service's decisions as the fires burned larger and began to join together. When the fires first started, the Forest Service called regional managers looking for support.
News10 interviews and the government’s assessment of the response revealed differing answers as to whether fire managers called California for aide.
The GAO said California was not called because fire managers assumed the state was busy fighting its own fires.
Galloway said California was contacted, but its offer of help was turned down for several reasons, including the limited time the helicopter would be available.
“We had that offer,” Galloway said. “Given the size of the fires, the availability of the helicopters was very limited as far as the time they'd be able to spend on the fire. The assessment was made that given the help that they were offering, it wasn’t going to be significant enough to try and engage them.”
Galloway went on to say that the overall lack of resources put the whole Forest Service in a tough position.
“We had waivers that we could use mechanized equipment within the wilderness, drop retardant within the wilderness, those kinds of things were in place during the fire,” he pointed out. “It’s just that, in order to utilize that stuff, you have to have boots on the ground and we couldn’t get them there.”
By July 17, the fires had been declared one for administrative purposes. The combined fires were called the Biscuit Complex. Within 10 days, the Forest Service was calling the fire “explosive.” Josephine County activated its Emergency Operations Center and evacuation notices were issued for the entire Illinois Valley.
“It was coming. It looked like it was coming,” Feldhaus said. “It looked like it was going to come into the valley.”
As fire managers made another controversial decision to back burn into the fire to protect towns, community members were growing more unhappy with the strategy and were concerned the back burns were too large.
“Honestly, people were mad at the Forest Service,” Feldhaus said. “They were mad that the Forest Service had let it go.”
The Forest Service maintained that’s what it had to do to protect people and homes. On August 3, 2002, a fire behavior computer model gave a 70 percent probability that one segment of the fire would burn over communities in the Illinois Valley within 48 hours.
“Firefighters put in over 40 miles of fire line to try to halt the fire and minimize the impact,” Galloway said. “Pretty heroic stuff.”LOOKING BACK
The Biscuit Fire was declared contained 55 days after it began and was controlled 119 days after the first starts.
In all, the fire burned 499,570 acres and cost nearly $155 million to fight. Four residences had been burned and 10 other structures lost.
As the tenth anniversary of the fire neared, the Forest Service continued to defend its actions. A representative pointed out that no firefighters had been killed while battling the flames and no towns had been burned.
Looking back, Galloway said the decisions that were made were ones that put people and homes above everything else. Despite the questions and controversies, the Forest Service is standing by its decisions and its crews and crediting them for keeping the Biscuit Fire from becoming a larger disaster than it already was.
“There’s still a lot of emotion that’s tied to the event, whether you’re the resident and still want to do the armchair quarterbacking.. or the agency person,” Galloway said. “It was a tough year. We did what we could do with what we had. I don’t think many of the decisions, if any of the decisions, that were made during the first few days of that fire event would change much today.”ONLINEGeneral Accounting Office Report on the Biscuit Complex FireBiscuit Fire from SpaceInteractive Biscuit Fire MapsREAD MOREFrom Awesome Glow to Scorched Earth: Remembering the Biscuit