Land use policy key to public safety

Larsen Arndt

Guest Commentary

Sweet Home was very, very fortunate last week.

Last Tuesday, we watched helplessly as Detroit, Lyons, Gates and Mill City in the North Santiam Canyon were either destroyed or severely damaged by wildfires.

Meanwhile, another fire had started that morning to our south, in the Mackenzie drainage and by Tuesday evening it had destroyed the communities of Blue River and Vida. As dry winds from the east pushed these wildfires, ballooning them to massive sizes at breathtaking speeds, we feared that our town might be next.

Why wasn’t Sweet Home burned, or even forced to evacuate?

While there are many factors that made a difference, I want to point out a major – perhaps the most important – reason why Sweet Home fared so well compared to our neighbors to the north and south.

Many are likely unaware of this, but at least two fires ignited east of Sweet Home early Tuesday morning. The same hot dry winds from the east were blowing on these fires. The vegetation in our canyon was as dry as that of the North Santiam and the Makenzie canyons. The potential for catastrophic loss of life and property was the same. So why the difference?

Sweet Home fared so well largely because these fires started on private timber lands that were protected by the landowner and Oregon Department of Forestry. The fires to our north and south were started on U.S. Forest Service land. Why does that make a difference?

Two radio conversations that I’ve listened in on during fires will give the answer.

Radio 1: I was driving a water tender on a fire near Quartzville in the summer of 2006. For some reason I was given a USFS band radio. Hauling water to fill up fold-a-tanks isn’t the most exciting job, so I listened to the Forest Service radio more for entertainment than anything. I remember hearing someone report a lightning fire on USFS ground.

This was in late August or early September, so I expected to hear a fast response with an aggressive plan for putting it out before it got out of control.

But the response I heard was this, “continue to monitor it.” As days went by, the people monitoring the fire reported that it was growing, and the response was still the same.

Eventually, an east wind event happened that fanned that fire into a large wildfire and the Forest Service spent the rest of the summer pouring resources into it. The fire didn’t go out until the fall rains came. This fire was in a remote area, so thankfully no homes or lives were lost.

Only taxpayer dollars.

Radio 2: This past Tuesday, as the fires were just starting, I was driving back from checking the fire equipment on our logging job. I had my Cascade Timber Consulting band radio on so I could hear what was going on.

The difference in the response to the fires that were reported that morning was night and day from the response I heard years before on the Forest Service radio. As each fire was reported, it was dealt with decisively and aggressively. Crews were called out, dozers and water trucks were mobilized, and backup dozers and lowboys were prepared.

I even heard them send someone further up Highway 20 to make sure the highway was open in case Cascadia residents needed to evacuate to the east. That’s technically not the private timber company’s responsibility, but yet they did it.

At about 8:30 a.m. I heard one of the CTC supervisors report that the fire he was on was out and contained, and he had people staying to watch it. He asked, “Where can I send my water truck to help now?” He was told to send it back to the shop to re-fill and get ready for the next fire.

By 8:30! Mission accomplished and going back to get ready for the next call.

I truly believe that the difference between Sweet Home’s fate Tuesday morning and that of Detroit, Blue River, Mill City and Vida is the two different responses illustrated by these two radios.

I was very angered this week to hear both Gov. Jay Insly of Washington and our Gov. Kate Brown almost immediately blamed these fires on global warming. They said this is going to be the new normal.

I’m sorry, governors, but this doesn’t have to be the new normal. We should not accept that as an excuse, admitting defeat and resigning ourselves to this being normal.

People did not have to die this week. Wildlife did not have to die this week. Half a million acres of forests did not have to burn up this week. We can have healthy forests that are not a hazard to people living near them.

The Beachie Creek Fire in the North Santiam Canyon was started by lightning Aug. 16, on Forest Service land. It smoldered until the east winds fanned it into an inferno that no one could fight.

Forest Service mismanagement? Maybe. They say they did not fight it more aggressively out of concern for firefighter safety. But what is clear is that, when it combined with new fires started by downed powerlines, it became very deadly.

The Holiday Farm Fire seems to have started on Forest Service land, and grew to a wind-charged inferno in the heavy underbrush and dense forest of the Willamette National Forest, from where it jumped to private lands, destroying homes, towns, and human lives.

Whom would you rather have as a neighbor – the Forest Service, or a private timber company?

Sweet Home is fortunate that we have as a neighbor a private timber company who maintains a healthy forest and aggressively fights fire, rather than monitor it.

I don’t write this simply to vent. I write this as a plea to my fellow Oregonians to enter this discussion and help change things. I write this to echo the message that these fires have already made all too clear: land use policy affects all Oregonians. For too long the only groups who are in the discussion about public land use are radical environmentalists and resource-based industry people, such as loggers, timber owners, and ranchers.

As illustrated by the two radio conversations, the timber resource industry is concerned about our environment AND the people who live in it. We, in the timber industry, need the rest of Oregon who are concerned about the responsible use our public forests to join the discussion.

Oregon citizens need to educate themselves, listen to both sides, look at data and speak up. I am a logger, and sometimes introduce myself to people as a “data- driven environmentalist.”

We need more data-driven environmentalists to speak up. The tragic events of this last week have proven that land use policy affects all Oregonians.

– Larsen Arndt is a local logger in the Sweet Home area.