The Barry Point Fire: Taking stock of the lessons learned
11.05.2013

All photos courtesy of the Fremont-Winema National Forest.

The lightning storm rolled over the Fremont-Winema National Forest on Aug. 5, 2012. No rain, just lightning. It had already been a hot, dry summer. Fire managers got ready to be busy.

The following day, crews responded to several fires that were reined in routinely. About 4:30 p.m., the fire lookout on Dog Mountain spotted fire again and radioed the dispatch center. Over the next 10 minutes, he called in several updates: The fire was torching and spotting, doubling in size.

“He had an urgency in his voice,” recalls Paul Harlan, vice president of resources at Collins Pine, who heard the call over a radio at his office at the sawmill, about 20 miles away in Lakeview.

As it turns out, this was a fire that would make history, burning 93,000 acres of pine, juniper and rangeland over three weeks..

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No lives were lost, but now, a year after the Barry Point Fire, Collins Pine and other timberland owners are scrambling to recoup what value they can from burned and deteriorating pine. Much of it would not otherwise have been harvested for years.

And the US Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Forestry continue to study this fire – and others that involve multiple agencies – to learn how to further refine firefighting communication and collaboration. If there is an upside, it’s that some of the lessons were put to use during the 2013 fire season, one of the most challenging in Oregon in decades.

"That fire took off"

Within 30 minutes of being spotted, the lookout estimated the fire at seven acres, with wind-carried embers igniting new fires 300 yards ahead of the main fire.

Firefighters and equipment had been dispatched immediately and were beginning to arrive, but this was a tough one.

“That fire took off and ran almost immediately after being detected,” says Greg Pittman, ODF’s district forester in Lakeview. “They simply couldn’t get around in front of it.”

The fire spread to the east and northeast for nearly a week – driven by southwest wind, which is typical here. And fire managers had set up to stop a continued spread in that direction. But by Aug. 12, the winds started blowing from the north, which is not typical. The fire turned south, burning toward California.

“You get that sick feeling in your stomach,” Harlan says, recalling the moment it occurred to him that the fire could now burn all the way into California, where Collins owns tens of thousands of acres of FSC-certified ponderosa pine timberland. “You think, ‘It wouldn’t really do that, would it?’ Well, it did.”

The fire made a huge run overnight, burning about 15,000 acres and crossing the state line. Within the next few days it consumed more than 20,000 acres of Collins timberland.

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Finally, the weather cooled, a little rain fell and firefighters were able to contain the fire, 21 days after it began.

As Harlan and Pittman are describing the events, they’re standing on a Forest Service road surrounded by the charred trunks of what used to be ponderosa pines. It’s a clear, cold October morning. A year earlier, this is all still smoking.

A group that includes key people in Oregon’s forestry community has just gotten off a tour bus: timber executives, Oregon State University forestry professors, conservationists, board members and staff of the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, and Oregon State Forester Doug Decker.

Many are a day’s drive from home – Portland, Corvallis or Salem. Lakeview is a town of roughly 2,300 people, about 10 miles north of the California border, not far from where California and Nevada meet. It’s a long way from anywhere.

OFRI has brought the group here to listen to the story of the Barry Point Fire, and to conduct what amounts to a postmortem.

“We don’t want to make a habit of hosting tours of disasters,” Harlan tells the group later that day. He draws some laughs with that, although there’s not much to laugh about considering what the fire did to Collins. 

Nature “out of whack”

How did this happen? There’d been drought, the winds were unusual, and the humidity was low even at night, which partly contributed to the fire making big gains even while it was dark. Typically wildfires calm down at night.

“It’s a little bit unusual to have an active fire pretty much 24/7,” Pittman says.

But on top of all that, the forest was overstocked with fuel. It’s a story that goes back 150 years, as OSU professor Stephen Fitzgerald explains.

Fitzgerald says that fire, burning at low intensity along the ground, was historically common in the ponderosa pine forests of eastern Oregon. The fires cleared out brush and small trees while the larger ponderosas remained, having adapted to survive this type of fire.

Showing a graph of fire activity over the past few hundred years, he points to about 1880 and says, “All of a sudden, the fires stop.”

Why? The environment was changed by cattle grazing, logging and the end of Native American burning, as tribes were moved to reservations. Then into the 20th century, humans started quickly putting out wildfires.

Of course, the forest kept growing. And over the past 20 years, with the severe drop-off of active management in national forests, few trees have been removed – by fire, logging or otherwise.

“When you remove fire,” Fitzgerald tells the group, “you see this irruption of trees in the understory … That has consequences that we are dealing with today.”

With more fuel, fires burn hotter and bigger, and instead of creeping along the ground, flames climb into the crowns of the trees. Unlike ground fire, crown fire kills the pines.

Foresters use terms like “catastrophic fire” and “stand replacement” to describe how these fires are different, meaning entire stands of trees are killed and have to regenerate from scratch.

“We’ve fundamentally changed how fire operates,” Fitzgerald says. “There’s something wrong when you have stand-replacement fires in ponderosa pine across tens of thousands of acres, when historically it did a surface burn or flared up here and there.”

Fitzgerald says he has heard people say, “‘Nature will take care of it if you let it alone.’ Well I can tell you that it’s so far out of whack that nature can’t rectify this on its own.”

“It’s going to take human input to actually re-engineer that back to some kind of natural state,” he says. Either that, or there will be more Barry Point Fires.

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Change of plans: "A big curve"

The “re-engineering” Fitzgerald talks about is what the Forest Service and others call “restoration.” This usually involves the Forest Service hiring a contractor to thin the forest. Some of the trees removed will be sawlogs, but many will be too small to make lumber from.

Often these projects are designed and promoted by “collaboratives,” groups that usually include USFS foresters, timber executives, local leaders and environmentalists sitting down to figure out how and where to do a project. The idea is to find common ground instead of arguing and filing lawsuits.

Jim Walls runs the collaborative here, the Lakeview Stewardship Group. It had been moving projects through the long, complicated pipeline for years, doing environmental analyses and getting permits. It had been on track to start work this past summer. But the fire beat them to it by a year, burning in a few days an area that the group expected would provide two or three years of restoration work.

“The fire threw a big curve into that one, and took a whole bunch of years right out from under us,” Walls says.

Moreover, the fire completely missed some earlier restoration projects that had been done in the Fremont-Winema, places where thinned-out fuel might have slowed the fire. The location of the Barry Point Fire was a stroke of wrong-place, wrong-time bad luck.

Yet the collaborative is looking ahead, and has begun planning a new restoration project elsewhere on the forest..

Salvaging "a very perishable product"

As soon as a ponderosa pine is killed by fire, two things start to happen. If you’re in the business of selling lumber, neither is helpful.

First, the tree is invaded by a fungus that begins to rot the wood. Even if the wood itself is sound when it’s harvested, the fungus leaves a blue stain.

Second, the beetles show up and begin boring holes in the trees, an even worse defect.

With pine – used to make moldings, doors and windows, and valued for its “pretty factor” – blue stain and bug holes destroy at least half the wood’s value, says Dee Brown, manager of the Collins mill in Lakeview.

Collins began salvaging burned trees from its own land last October. Some of the logs were still smoking as they were loaded on trucks. As they complete salvage work this fall, they have brought to the mill in one year about the same amount of timber they would normally process in two.

“Time is everything when it comes to salvage,” Brown says. “This is a very perishable product.”

Decker, the state forester, says Collins deserves credit for deciding to keep the mill going despite the lost value, telling Harlan and others: “You’re making the best of a really bad situation ... (a lot of) people might have walked away from that. You’ve made a choice to stick with the community. That’s worthy of note; that’s pretty remarkable.”

If Collins were to close the Lakeview mill, 70-plus people would be out of work. Also, the loss of the mill would make it much harder to do the forest restoration work the collaborative and the Forest Service are trying to ramp up.

"The first priority"

A year after the fire, it’s clear there were and still are some sharply contrasting approaches among state and federal agencies about how to respond to wildfires.

The Barry Point Fire repeatedly challenged the resources and abilities of the managers assigned to it. The team charged with managing the fire was upgraded several times as the fire grew more difficult. While those management transitions were deemed necessary at the time, they may have complicated communication and coordination of the firefighting effort, at least for a time. This became even more complex as the fire eventually burned on two national forests and private land in two states – which means multiple agencies were having to talk and coordinate their work.

Nancy Hirsch, the chief of ODF’s Fire Protection Division, suggests that different agencies, particularly the Forest Service and ODF, have different policies and values, which probably affected decisions about how and where to fight the fire. ODF is responsible for protecting private forestland from fire, while the Forest Service is responsible for fire on national forests.

“For a variety of reasons, we’ve seen a lack of active management out there on a lot of the federal land in Oregon,” Hirsch says. “As a result, people have lost track of the real value of trees to the private landowners next door, who are actively growing and harvesting them.”

As Barry Shullanberger, Deputy Fire Staff Officer for the Fremont-Winema National Forest, describes the issue, “Everybody’s values are different.” Some people have timber, some have cattle, some have homes – and all may be threatened by the fire and all may require resources to be spread in different directions.

He says that for the Forest Service, too, “Private property was always the first priority.”

A couple dozen private landowners lost timber, fencing or other property in the fire, Collins just being the largest. But no homes were lost, even those within the fire perimeter.

The Forest Service has a long-standing agreement to sell Collins 10 million board feet of timber per year from another part of the Fremont-Winema, which was untouched by the fire. That’s about a third of what Collins processes annually. Tracy Beck, acting supervisor of the forest, says the Forest Service this year agreed to boost that to 15 million board feet a year.

“We’ll keep that up until their lands and others recover,” Beck says.

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Lessons learned

The tour wrapped up with an hour-long discussion of the lessons learned, which boil down to a few themes:

  • The need for better communication and coordination – among agencies and between fire managers and crews on the ground. When new management teams were brought in to handle the growing fire, Pittman says, they often didn’t fully recognize the responsibility and capacities of ODF and local agencies.
  • Hirsch emphasizes that people from different agencies who may end up on a fire together spend time getting to know each other before the fire season starts. “You need to make that phone call, go out for a cup of coffee and gain an understanding of the values at risk – particularly those of private landowners,” she says.
  • Fire management teams need to continue to be educated about the value of property, such as ranchers’ barbed-wire fences, which can cost up to $15,000 per mile, as well as standing timber.
  • Fire managers need to communicate better with landowners, large and small. “We need to throw a lot bigger net out there,” Pittman says, “and start contacting those landowners who may potentially be impacted … Often times landowners got frustrated simply because they didn’t know what was going on.”
  • Finally, the fact that the Barry Point Fire burned 93,000 acres and yet completely missed forest restoration projects that had been completed indicates that the pace of restoration work – to improve the conditions that fueled the fire in the first place – is too slow: “We’ve got to figure out how to accelerate the process,” Walls says.

Hirsch says the lessons from Barry Point, especially the communication with landowners, improved this last fire season during the fighting of several large fires. “We were talking to the right people, and that’s vital when you have that magnitude of loss,” she says.

Shullanberger agreed that communication is a big lesson. This past year he says, “The ODF and the Forest Service, we talked a lot more often. We knew exactly what to do if the event happens. And we understand more of each other’s role.”

“It will take a long time for that healing to happen,” he adds. “The hopeful thing is that we learn from it and try to get better.”

 

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To view more images from the Barry Point Fire, visit the Fremont Winema National Forest Flikr gallery of the fire.

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