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Flat Fire in SW Oregon prompts questions about firefighting in Kalmiopsis Wilderness

Flat Fire Facebook Page
The Flat Fire is burning in Southwest Oregon after sparking on Saturday.

As the Flat Fire continues to grow in southwest Oregon, part of it is about half a mile from the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, as of Thursday afternoon.

The Flat Fire has raised a debate about how to fight fires in wilderness areas.

The Kalmiopsis Wilderness in southwest Oregon is a protected area known for its diverse plant life. Due to their unique status, wilderness areas like this have special restrictions for fighting wildfires, like prohibiting mechanized equipment such as bulldozers or chainsaws. Permission can be requested to authorize using these tools, if needed, from a forest superintendent or forest supervisor.

This week, Rep. Court Boice from Curry County sent an email to state and federal legislators urging them to make it easier for firefighters to work in wilderness areas by making an exception and removing the restrictions in cases like this.

"That's a horrible hamstring for our firefighting heroes in that, because it is a wilderness area, that that's prohibited," he said.

He's concerned about environmental and weather conditions in the region creating a fast-moving fire.

"Just a wilderness area does not have to be void of being touched by man," he said.

Many large fires have burned in this region in the past, including the Silver Fire in 1987, Biscuit Fire in 2002, the Collier Butte Fire in 2015, the Chetco Bar Fire in 2017 and the Klondike Fire in 2018.

But others say these areas are especially vulnerable, and allowing tools like bulldozers or fire lines, which can have devastating environmental impacts, would do more harm than good.

Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, said running bulldozers in the Kalmiopsis would be enormously destructive to a very fragile area.

"The scars from that use would far outlast the effects of the fire, and it would just be a mistake, not just to the spirit and intent of wilderness, but a real, real damage to the land itself," he said.

He also pointed to the benefits of wildfire as helping rejuvenate landscapes and reduce fuels in the environment.

"Fire is a natural process. Wildfire kind of helps keep the 'wild' in wilderness. Many other wilderness areas we have, the fire's influences account for its beauty, its wildness, its naturalness," he said.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Flat Fire "is not an imminent threat" to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, according to Doug Epperson, public information officer for Northwest Incident Management Team Six, which is fighting the fire.

"It's not moving that direction. It's actually moving in a southwest direction, which, in essence, is taking it away. It would go around the wilderness area," Epperson said.

He said if the fire reaches the wilderness area, the team's response would be proportional to the risk.

"It's not like, if it gets into the wilderness area, we're just going to let Mother Nature take its course and burn because there is values at risk that will be at risk if it gets into that wilderness area. So we will actively work to put it out," he said.

Luke Ruediger, Siskiyou conservation director for the Siskiyou Crest Alliance, said that heavy fire suppression tactics have become more common over time.

"Wilderness fire suppression has become increasingly more industrialized over the last number of years. And although historically, bulldozing inside of wilderness was a very rare occurrence, it's becoming increasingly heavily used by federal land managers throughout southwestern Oregon and Northern California," he said.

"I think fire crews just feel that they need to do something a lot of times to appease the public that wants to see something done. The problem with that is that oftentimes what we're doing is ineffective," he continued.

Rich Fairbanks, head of Fairbanks Forest Management, a forestry company in the Applegate Valley, said the frequency and intensity of these fires is caused by climate change, and society needs to take more proactive approaches to combating them.

"The fires are just too intense. They're threatening whole communities and communities that were never threatened by fire before. And as a society, I think we need to deal with that," he said. "This is a long-term problem that needs 'lawyers, guns and money' applied to it. And that's not happening. We're just in reactive mode as a society."

The Flat Fire began on Saturday and was human-caused, according to Curry County Sheriff John Ward.

Jane Vaughan began her journalism career as a reporter for a community newspaper in Portland, Maine. She's been a producer at New Hampshire Public Radio and worked on WNYC's On The Media. Jane earned her Master's in Journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.