Monster in the Woods: the Biscuit Fire*
A vast plume of thick gray smoke billowed 30,000 feet (9,000 m) into the sky over southwestern Oregon, dwarfing ridgetops on the Siskiyou National Forest. Six more mushroom clouds rose above nearby ridges like volcanic eruptions. Trees 150 feet (45 m) tall torched like matchsticks.
Valley in Danger
By mid-July 2002, the Florence Fire (later known as the Biscuit Fire**) was burning with a destructive power rarely seen. Already the biggest Oregon blaze in more than a century, it was poised to roar down into the heavily populated Illinois Valley. Two weeks of ceaseless struggle had done almost nothing to stop it, and firefighters put the chances of losing towns in the valley at 75 percent.
Biscuit Fire on August 16, 2002. A smoke plume rises from the vicinity of Snow Camp Lookout as the northwest flank of the fire creeps down into the Lawson Creek drainage. In the foreground are Oak Flat and the Illinois River. Photo: Gary Percy, Siskiyou National Forest, Gold Beach, OR, 2002.
Greg Gilpin, a fire manager for the Oregon Department of Forestry, could sense the fear in the 1,500 people gathered before him at the Illinois Valley High School on Sunday, July 28. His job was protecting their homes and lives, and he knew that the situation was even worse than it looked.
On the other side of those ridges, just out of sight, a 20-mile (32-km) wall of fire was moving through a wilderness of tinder-dry trees and brush. Every firefighter facing the blaze had fallen back, leaving no defenses between the flames and the 17,000 people living in the Illinois Valley towns of Selma, Kerby, Cave Junction, and O’Brien.
Gilpin stepped onto the polished wooden floor, stood under a basketball hoop and spoke into a microphone. “There is a very good chance that this fire is going to reach the valley floor,” he said. “It is so big and so awesome, there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop this fire.”
Yet the worst never came to pass. Nearly 7,000 of the Nation’s best firefighters defied the odds and held off an inferno that threatened hundreds of square miles and thousands of homes. The Biscuit Fire, which eventually eclipsed the infamous Tillamook Burn as Oregon’s signature fire, offers lessons for every State in the West.
Southwestern Oregon baked under a blistering heat wave. Sunrise on July 13 marked the 53rd day since the last rain, and the weather forecast that day called for a high of 105 0F (41 deg;C). The forests in the Illinois Valley were as parched as kiln-dried lumber.
Conditions were perfect for the dry lightning that strikes when heat evaporates a thunderstorm’s raindrops before they reach the ground. One-third of forest fires begin with a single explosion of dry lightning.
Firespotters eyeballed the woods from glass-walled lookouts on five different mountaintops. At midday, thunderheads rose above the mountains. The storm erupted just after 2 p.m., unleashing a fusillade of thunderbolts on the thickly forested land along the California-Oregon border. Sensors recorded 581 downstrikes in Jackson and Josephine Counties, with 23 thunderbolts blasting onto the Siskiyou National Forest. Not a drop of water slaked the thirsty Earth.
One lightning bolt struck near Florence Creek, touching off a small fire that hid beneath heavy brush and thick trees in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Firefighters call them “sleepers,” fires that can creep unseen for days before exploding.
As the storm abated, a Siskiyou National Forest reconnaissance plane took flight to search for fire. The spotter and pilot quickly found two other blazes pumping out smoke visible from the air.
Bob Del Monte, assistant fire management officer for the Siskiyou National Forest, immediately recognized the danger. The isolated Kalmiopsis Wilderness was a fortress for fire. A vertical landscape of sharp ridges and plunging canyons, threaded by rushing water and scarred by old burns, the wilderness contained only a handful of roads-rough tracks that demand four-wheel drive.
Del Monte asked for smokejumpers, but dispatchers at the Redmond Air Center turned him down. The smokejumpers were fighting fires elsewhere in Oregon and the region. None would be available for at least 48 hours. Del Monte was on his own.
A trail passed near one of the fires, and Del Monte sent two local fire crews on a 7-mile (11-km) hike. Their orders were to contain the fire and, if possible, put it out.
Del Monte climbed aboard a helicopter for a short flight to the other fire. The view across the sea of green ridges was ominous: Two fires were evident where the day before there had been just one. Both were on steep and rocky slopes, where a glowing red edge of fire moved through Douglas-fir and white fir.
Del Monte sent a team with two bulldozers to widen the rough jeep tracks near the two fires. He knew from the beginning that the effort was likely to be futile, at least in the short run. The fires would almost certainly be out of control before heavy equipment could use the tracks.
The Siskiyou fire managers quickly agreed that they were overwhelmed. Local crews could fight small fires, but not three blazes that were miles apart, each burning through roadless areas. They asked for a type 2 team, but they were hardly the only ones making such a request. This was the second-worst western fire season in 50 years. Across the Pacific Northwest, fires were erupting on a broad front. A dozen major fires were burning on nearly 100,000 acres (40,000 ha) in Oregon alone. The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland weighed the desperate pleas from local fire managers.
Federal rules set strict guidelines for making such decisions. The first priority is human life, then towns and historically significant cultural resources, such as American Indian pictographs or archeological sites. Farther down the list are vacation homes and, finally, timber in uninhabited forests such as the Kalmiopsis. Del Monte’s trees would have to wait their turn.
Federal fire coordinators informed the Siskiyou fire managers that they were second in line for a type 2 team, behind crews fighting the Trimbly Creek Fire in eastern Oregon, where a mile- wide flame front threatened six homes.
The situation turned grimmer on July 15, when a resident reported yet another fire in the rough backcountry. And then, that afternoon, a reconnaissance flight spotted one more fire, this one on a south- facing slope near Florence Creek, 27 miles (43 km) north of the other blazes. Florence had finally reared its flaming head.
First View of Florence
Del Monte had a single fire crew in reserve, which meant he could fight only one of the other four fires burning on the Siskiyou. He chose Florence because it posed the greatest danger to a populated area. It was only 6 miles (10 km) from the hamlet of Oak Flat, a 480- acre (190-ha) island of private land on the Siskiyou National Forest, including 2 homes and 12 summer cabins. Del Monte had confidence in the crew boss, Paul Hiebert, who had experience as a hotshot.
The crew set out for the fire at 7:45 p.m. on July 15. After hiking 4 miles (6 km) into the darkness, the crew bedded down beside the trail. They couldn’t see, smell, or hear the fire. Early next morning, they set out again, catching their first sight of Florence at 8:15 a.m., just as they rounded a bend along the Illinois River.
It was already an impressive specimen. The flames had spread across 50 acres (20 ha) and were tearing through 15-foot (5-m) brush and a tangle of dead trees along the canyon wall. Embers wafted by upslope winds carried spot fires hundreds of feet up the ridge. Fingers of flame crawled toward the river on fallen snags.
Hiebert’s heart sank. The fire had covered 6 acres (2.4 ha) when the team was dispatched and had grown 10 times as large in just a day. Hiebert had hoped the fire would be high on the ridge, but instead it was burning close to Florence Creek and a smaller creek nearby. That made it even more dangerous.
Hiebert left his crew beside the river and sized up the fire. The standard tactic for taming such a blaze was a direct attack. Once the fire was contained, Hiebert could run a hose to the river and use a portable pump to douse the flames. Or he could call in an airstrike of water or retardant.
As he calculated the angles of possible attack, Hiebert thought about his crew’s safety. No one fighting wildfires had forgotten the deaths of four firefighters on the Thirtymile Fire during the previous summer. The watchword among fire managers was “safety first,” and Hiebert wouldn’t risk lives to protect an uninhabited forest. He plotted an escape route to use if the winds shifted and the fire wheeled around his crew.
Florence was well dug in. The flames were about a quarter mile (0.6 km) from the Illinois River, a steep uphill hike. The only possible route for retreat was through a deep, boulderstrewn creek bed. If the crew had to run for it, Hiebert thought, someone could fall and break a leg.
Hiebert went over the options again and again. His crew couldn’t get around the fire, which was spreading in all directions. He radioed the bad news to Del Monte. As Hiebert waited for an answer, the crew set to work clearing brush along Florence Creek.
As they worked, the fire grewjumping across one of the creeks and thundering up the ridge with a shriek that reminded Hiebert of a jet engine’s roar. By midafternoon, the fire had swelled to 300 acres (120 ha). At 8 \p.m., Del Monte told the crew to pull out.
Biscuit Fire nearing the Illinois River and threatening small communities. Photo: Tom had, USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Region, Portland, OR, 2002.
Florence had won the first round. Although two crews had contained one of the Siskiyou fires, the others were burning out of control.
Florence doubled again in the day after Hiebert’s retreat and was sending columns of smoke 10,000 feet (3,000 m) into the air. If not stopped now, it could burn until late fall, scorching the forest through the dry days of August and September.
Del Monte studied the map, searching for a strategy that would keep Florence contained in the wilderness until help could arrive. The terrain offered some outer boundaries for the blaze. To the north, a gravel barrier, Bald Mountain Road, served as a fire break. To the south, the Illinois River provided what might be a sufficient natural barrier.
Yet every direction posed serious problems. Winds blowing every afternoon along the Illinois River canyon had already nudged Florence east toward Oak Flat. If the fire jumped the narrow river and headed south, it would storm into the Kalmiopsis and its enormous amounts of fuel and lack of natural barriers.
Air tankers could push back a fire of this size. But the 10 Oregon tankers were already protecting homes threatened by fires in eastern and central Oregon. The danger to Oak Flat wasn’t enough to justify a change in plans.
On July 21, a week after the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center approved the request, a type 2 team arrived. Glenn Joki, a fire manager with 37 years of experience, led the team, which worked out of Arizona. The firefighters were just off the giant Rodeo- Chedeski Fire, a conflagration that made the tiny Arizona town of Show Low the national focus for the summer’s wildfires.
Joki flew over the fires. He didn’t want to see flames; he wanted to see country. From the air, the forest’s web of creeks was invisible, running through the bottom of deep and narrow canyons. In the distance, Joki could see roads through the forest, but only Bald Mountain Road lay close to the Florence Fire. Joki looked for a place where his firefighters could dig in and know the fire wouldn’t get around them. He found few good options.
The three other fires burned toward one another through the southern end of the Siskiyou National Forest, miles away from Florence. Joki realized that he couldn’t battle big blazes so far apart. He and the Siskiyou fire managers asked again for reinforcements, calling for a type 1 team.
But 14 of the 16 type 1 teams were already committed elsewhere, including 4 on other Oregon fires. The coordination center in Portland turned him down. The Siskiyou blazes, the fire coordinators said, posed no imminent threat to human life or communities. Instead, Portland sent a second type 2 team to the Illinois Valley to battle the southern fires: Biscuit 1, Biscuit 2, and Sourdough.
That day, the three fires merged into a single blaze. The fire managers named it Sour Biscuit.
Joki turned back to the bigger, more dangerous threat: the implacable, capricious Florence blaze.
Joki launched an ambitious plan. He sent half of his crews to build a 5mile (8-km) fireline along Florence’s eastern flank. They set to work more than 4 miles (6.4 km) northeast of the fire, a decision that consigned thousands of additional acres to the flames. Joki felt he had little choice. No place closer to the fire offered an adequate margin of safety.
Florence was teaching a lesson: With today’s huge fuel loads, fires in rough country such as the Kalmiopsis can easily overrun directattack firelines. Again and again, the southwestern Oregon crews had to fall way back from the leading edge of the fire, sacrificing huge stands of timber in exchange for a safe place to make a stand.
Joki deployed a second team of firefighters along Bald Mountain Road. Their mission was to keep the fire, growing slowly northward, penned in the wilderness. But Florence had its own strategy. As the crews dug in with their bulldozers and chain saws, the fire suddenly turned east, galloping along the road toward Oak Flat.
Threat to Oak Flat
Firefighters raced ahead to set up a new blocking position that would protect the 14 houses in Oak Flat, now just 4 miles (6.4 km) from the flame front. Joki ordered his crews to prepare the ground for a huge burnout, as large as 1,920 acres (780 ha). The firefighters planned to blacken 3 square miles (8 km^sup 2^) of forest between Florence and the hamlet.
Joki wanted to know what route civilians and firefighters could take if the fire turned unexpectedly, and he scouted the ground himself. The Illinois River Road, he saw, was surprisingly rugged. It was a narrow, partially paved track with hairpin turns, steep grades along a cliff above the river, and washouts. A retreat along this road would be slow and dangerous.
The scene at Oak Flat was even more discouraging. Joki’s trained eyes saw homes nestled deep in the woods, with trees directly overhead. Many sat at the end of driveways so overgrown they looked like tunnels. His firefighters attempted to clear brush and build a perimeter around the houses, reducing the chance that stray embers could set them afire.
As Joki’s crews worked in Oak Flat, Florence once again changed directions, moving south toward the Illinois River, posing a whole new set of dangers. The fire could follow the river into Oak Flat, forcing evacuation. And Joki began to wonder: What if Florence leapt across the 100-foot-wide (30-m-wide) Illinois River, the only natural barrier left between the fire and the people living in the Illinois Valley?
The answer came the next day. On July 24 at 4 p.m., Joki took a call as he left a meeting of fire managers in Medford. Florence had jumped the river and was tearing up a slope toward the next mountaintop. Three helicopters were dousing the fire with water, to no effect. “There it goes,” Joki told his colleagues.
The Better Part of Valor
On July 24, the fire crews that had been frantically clearing brush around the hamlet of Oak Flat watched in horror as the Florence Fire revealed its new, nightmarish powers.
Sikorsky helicopter taking on retardant at the confluence of the Illinois and Rogue Rivers while battling the Biscuit Fire on August 20, 2002. Photo: Gary Percy, Siskiyou National Forest, Gold Beach, OR, 2002.
A plume of brilliant white smoke and steam spiraled above a nearby ridge, forming the thunderhead that signals unpredictable, explosive fire danger. The blaze that had broken out just 11 days earlier was now spawning a tornado of fire, fueled by dense forest and fanned by blistering winds. Firefighters immediately recognized the danger. When the plume topped 25,000 feet (7,600 m), it would collapse, spewing embers miles from the fire’s leading edge.
The firefighters told Oak Flat residents to flee. But one stubborn couple refused to leave their farm undefended, so firefighters handed them a pair of fire shelters. If the flames overwhelm you, they said, run into the blackened meadow and crawl inside. The firefighters lighted a burnout to clear the threatened ground near homes. They waited just long enough to see the brush burst into flames, then they jumped into their rigs and raced out of Oak Flat.
Out of Control
Over the next week, the firefighters retreated again and again as Florence unleashed plume after plume. After leaping 100 feet (30 m) across the Illinois River, the fire churned toward the valley towns, its flames whipped by 60-mile-per-hour (100-km/h) winds from Oregon’s inland high desert. The Chetco winds, named for the river valley they follow to the sea, usually arrive in late October. But, for the first time in anyone’s memory, they were blasting through July afternoons, with temperatures topping 100 0F (38 C), working like a bellows on a fire that already had ample fuel and momentum.
“You have to recognize that it’s beyond your control,” said Joki. “On those days, the dragon wins.” But Joki could not let this dragon prevail. His firefighters, 663 strong, formed the last line of defense for the Illinois Valley. It was a daunting prospect.
A fire hot enough to create plumes is a capricious beast. Such wildfires don’t follow the usual paths along river bottoms or up slopes. And no matter which direction a plume takes, the fire races at speeds of up to 10 miles per hour (16 km/h), far too fast for firefighters to outrun.
The plumes were awe inspiring, frightening even to men who spent their lives around fire. They made a sound unlike anything else on Earth, an ear-splitting shriek caused by winds uprooting trees, tossing logs, and filling the air with burning missues-the cones of ponderosa pines and the limbs of burning trees.
Biscuit Fire glowing eerily as it makes its way toward the Illinois River. Photo: Tom had, USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Region, Portland, OR, 2002
Illinois Valley Imperiled
On July 25, the day after they had fled Oak Flat, firefighters returned to see what had survived. Their desperation move had worked, up to a point. The fire reached Oak Flat, incinerating two cabins, a barn, a Quonset hut, and a shed. Ten cabins and two homes survived, as did the couple who had refused to leave.
Joki saw it as a victory. He walked among the fire crews scattered throughout the hamlet, surveying the scorched homes near the river and the blackened canyon walls rising above. But Oak Flat was not yet safe. Fire could still burn through the forest from the north. The crews set to work again, dousing hotspots and building a new fireline.
That night, Joki faced about 300 Illinois Valley residents at the Josephine County Building in Cave Junction. Joki stood before the crowd and delivered the grim news. The first of Florence’s plumes had collapsed that day, and the fire had taken off in every direction, chewing up 10,000 additional a\cres (4,000 ha) in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. That brought the fire to 15,932 acres (6,373 ha) and put it on a course directly toward the Illinois Valley.
“Ten thousand acres in one day?” one woman asked.
Joki struggled to explain. The terror of an uncontrolled wildfire was unimaginable for most people, even those whose backyards were a 1.2 million-acre (490,000-ha) national forest. Little more than a month before, Joki had watched residents in Arizona absorb similar terrifying news, even as the Rodeo-Chedeski Fire was sending 426 houses up in smoke. For the public, wildfire didn’t seem real until the blowtorch headed for their homes, their subdivisions, or their towns.
Joki had more worrisome predictions for local residents. The meteorologists on his team warned of more hot, dry, blustery weather, which could cause additional explosive fire plumes. Gilpin, the State fire manager, warned that the fire could return to areas already burned, so residents of Oak Flat wouldn’t be allowed back to their homes.
The weather cooperated on July 26, with a layer of warm air trapping the cooler air below, temporarily slowing the fire. But Florence roared back the next day. As the day warmed and the winds began to blow, it spun out another plume and bolted south, toward Oak Flat.
Joki’s firefighters again set off a burnout. But instead of retreating up the Illinois River Road, they remained in Oak Flat in a new safety zone-a burned-over meadow-and watched the fire erupt around them. With them were 17 civilians, including the same couple who had refused to leave their farm undefended when Florence had roared into Oak Flat three days earlier. They were joined by 15 visiting family members and friends.
Florence assaulted Oak Flat with 100-foot (30-m) flames, searing heat, and powerful winds that launched spot fires 2 miles (3.2 km) ahead of the flame front. As the woods burned around them, Joki’s firefighters and the civilians saw several more outbuildings go up in smoke. And they heard deafening explosions erupt as flames detonated propane tanks stashed as far away from homes as possible.
Fire managers wondered whether Oak Flat was a harbinger of the fate facing the entire Illinois Valley. They told residents of 30 houses and of the historic McCaleb Ranch along the Illinois River Road to abandon their homes, and they warned another 742 homeowners near Selma to prepare for evacuation within 48 hours of official notice. By day’s end, the Florence Fire had grown to 23,270 acres (9,308 ha).
In Eagle Creek, 250 miles (400 km) north, Mike Lohrey’s cell phone rang. On the line was Bob Del Monte, under normal circumstances a member of Lohrey’s type 1 team. “I think you’re coming down here,” Del Monte told Lohrey. “This thing has gone nuts.”
Monster on the March
Late that night, Florence’s orange glow was visible to Interstate Highway 5 travelers descending into Grants Pass, 26 miles (42 km) away. In 37 firefighting seasons, Joki had never seen a fire like Florence. Every wildfire in his experience would slow at night, as the temperature fell. But this one had so much heat and momentum that it cranked right through to morning, making tremendous runs after dark and burning intensely 24 hours a day.
The weather forecast was nightmarish: hot days, cloudless skies, and bone-dry winds across the ridgetops.
On July 28, a hot blue-sky Sunday afternoon, Florence kicked up seven billowing plumes. Each collapsed, spitting flame 2 miles (3.2 km) ahead of the fire’s core. Through the afternoon, each rose and fell 3 times, for a total of 21 separate incidents.
That day, Florence chewed through 45,000 acres (18,000 ha). The fire traveled nearly 7 miles (11 km) north and 9 miles (14 km) south. When the day was done, the McCaleb Ranch and a remote forest cabin had been incinerated.
That evening, 1,500 frightened people streamed into the parking lot at Illinois Valley High School. Throughout the afternoon, they’d watched the plumes climb and collapse in the clear blue skies. Along a 20-mile (32-km) stretch of U.S. Route 199, a two-lane road that bisects the Illinois Valley, the view to the west was an ominous string of plumes towering over the valley. Knots of anxious people gathered outside the high school and watched the Florence Fire advance to the ridgetops, torching 150-foot (45-m) trees.
Inside the gym, Gilpin scanned the worried faces. Gilpin knew these woods, knew just how volatile these forests were, and yet in 25 seasons he had never seen a fire run this hard at this many people.
“If you live anywhere in the Illinois Valley, you need to start thinking about what you’ll do if you have to evacuate,” Gilpin said. “We do need to be prepared for the possibility of fire on the valley floor in the next 24 to 36 hours.”
It was time to gather irreplaceable items, Gilpin told the stunned residents, and to pack them into cars and trucks, then to turn those vehicles around and to park them facing out of their driveways. To Gilpin, the unthinkable was now a stunningly real possibility. The unseasonable Chetco winds out of the northeast had fanned the Florence Fire into a 20-mile (32-km) flame front. If and when the normal west winds of July returned, the long wall of fire would blow into the Illinois Valley.
The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland had reached the same conclusion. Citing the flame front paralleling U.S. Route 199, they said there was a 75-percent chance that the fire would reach one or all of the Illinois Valley’s four towns in the next 2 to 5 days. Six days after Siskiyou fire managers first asked for a type 1 team, the Portland center forwarded the request to the Multiagency Coordinating (MAC) Group in Boise, which assigns the Nation’s 16 type 1 teams. The MAC Group didn’t hesitate. Lives were threatened. It was time to call in the best firefighters the Nation could muster.
Days of Fear
The Florence Fire’s Sunday rampage persuaded many Illinois Valley residents to evacuate even before an official notice. A steady stream of packed vans, campers, utility trailers-anything with wheels-headed out of the Illinois Valley.
Heading into the remote valley was another convoy of vehicles- bulldozers on huge flatbeds, red and yellow fire engines from almost three dozen Oregon communities, vans and school buses carrying firefighting crews. But for every Illinois Valley resident choosing to evacuate, many more elected to stay-at least temporarily-and a few even talked about making a private stand against the approaching flames.
At the Selma Market, information officers huddled with worried residents, tracing the fire’s perimeter on 3-by-5-foot (0.9-by-1.5 m) maps and advising people to leave immediately rather than risk an enormous traffic jam-like “getting caught in a grade B movie,” they called it-if the evacuation order came.
To the south, things looked dicey. A separate fire near Gasquet, CA, had closed U.S. Route 199 south, leaving open only two roads leading from the Illinois Valley to safety: U.S. Route 199 north to Grants Pass and a backcountry route up Deer Creek on forest roads to Williams, OR. The Illinois Valley Fire District designated two fireproof schools standing in acres of cleared land. Firefighters and residents could take shelter there if Florence crossed the highway.
Firefighters fanned out across the valley to protect 3,429 homes; 250 commercial buildings; and 2,200 barns, sheds, and garages, assessing each for defensibility against fire. They removed brush, limbs, and trees where possible and plotted the location of each with a satellite global positioning system.
Local officials recognized that they were confronting a force of nature that could blaze any path it chose. “For everything we’ve tried to do,” said Illinois Valley Fire District Chief Kyle Kirchner, “this fire has reared up and kicked us in the face.”
The unseasonable Chetco winds died down, a significant break for the firefighters. Florence, however, continued its march. And the Sour Biscuit blaze that was born in the same lightning strike as Florence had picked up momentum as well and now burned just 3 miles (4.8 km) from the larger fire. Soon, they would join.
Thirty Minutes To Evacuate
On July 30, Mike Lohrey’s type 1 team moved into position near Selma. A thick haze of smoke hugged the ground, hiding the flames. The choking smoke sent more Illinois Valley residents in search of clearer air. Motels in Grants Pass offering steep discounts to evacuees soon filled up.
Local radio stations broadcast that night’s public meeting, but hundreds of people still gathered at the high school to hear the latest fire news. Maps hanging outside told part of the story: The Florence Fire had reached 141,650 acres (56,660 ha) and the Sour Biscuit 33,287 acres (13,315 ha).
The gym was eerily dark, the lights left off in hopes of keeping the air cooler.
Gilpin stood before the crowd arrayed across a wall of bleachers, turning a slow half-circle as he described a 30-mile (48-km) makeshift rescue line to protect their homes, a line that remained days from completion. “I want you to be very aware that when the wind switches, even if we have a line on the east side of the fire,” Gilpin said, “I can’t guarantee that we’re going to hold that line. If this fire moves to the valley floor, I cannot guarantee that we can stop it on the valley floor.
“We’re looking at a fire that effectively at this point in time is uncontrolled. We’re looking at the possibility of this fire burning to the Rogue River,” Gilpin said. “We’re looking at the possibility of this fire jumping the Rogue River. And we’re looking at the possibility that this fire could go to 500,000 acres [200,000 ha].”
Everyone in the Illinois Valley should be prepared to evacuate their homes within 30 minutes of receiving notice, he said, and those already packed should seriously think about leaving immediately.
Gilpin took his seat knowing that even some of his colleagues fo\und his assessments alarmist. Lose the whole Illinois Valley? see the Florence Fire grow to 500,000 acres? It seemed implausible.
But Gilpin knew that Florence had already forced fire managers to throw out their normal strategies. They’d long ago given up on the idea of controlling the boundaries of the fire, and they had allowed Florence to grow unchallenged in any direction except east into the Illinois Valley. They’d given up even trying to douse the head of the blaze. The goal now was simple: Save the communities of the Illinois Valley from a wall of flames, the advance of which seemed inevitable.
Rogue River Hotshots fortifying a fireline for a burnout operation on the Biscuit Fire.
For years, Gilpin had preached that losing a subdivision to wildfire wasn’t a question of if, just a question of when. But even he had never imagined losing the entire Illinois Valley. Never until July 30.
In the previous 24 hours, the Florence Fire had gobbled another 65,000 acres (26,000 ha), an expanse two-thirds the size of Portland. It had run 5-1/2 miles (8.9 km) in just 90 minutes. At that rate, the fire could be in Selma in less than an hour. And as Gilpin sat in the darkened gym, he figured there was a good chance that the Florence Fire would enter the Illinois Valley in several places and at a dead run.
One veteran wildland firefighter sitting nearby had no quarrel with Gilpin’s grim assessment. Lohrey was the man chosen to rescue the threatened valley. And the next day at 6 a.m., he took command.
Shift in Strategy
At 5 a.m. on July 31, Lohrey crawled out of his two-man tent and took command of the fight against the Florence Fire. Immediately, he faced a crucial question: Was sacrificing another 547 square miles (1,417 km2) of forest his best shot at stopping the blaze?
One of the Nation’s most experienced fire managers, Lohrey viewed firefighting as a battle of wits. Every blaze had a personality, a character whose vulnerabilities could be exploited.
But Florence was especially savvy and strong. In nearly three decades in the woods, Lohrey had seldom seen a fire that combined its brute force, unpredictability, and preternatural ability to leap barriers, manmade or natural. This was an audacious fire, he felt, one that could be vanquished only with audacious tactics.
Florence’s exploding growth was due in part to fire managers’ initial decisions to fight blazes elsewhere in the West that more directly threatened buildings and people. But now, Florence was a powerful monster, and the Nation’s best firefighters were here to stop it.
Lohrey had studied the map, memorizing the twists and turns in the terrain. He knew that if the fire wasn’t stopped immediately, it could become the most destructive wildfire in modern history, burning to the Pacific Coast, the California redwoods, and the Rogue River, threatening the lives and homes of 50,000 people.
Lohrey reviewed the previous plans for corralling Florence. They were textbook examples of how fires are fought every summer in the United States, frontal attacks in which crews closed in on the flames and created a fireline by clearing brush and chopping down trees.
The approach was sound, but Lohrey believed it would not work on this blaze. The planned firelines had been dug too close to Florence, a fire so powerful it could throw flaming missiles 2 miles (3.2 km) ahead. He began drawing a new map in his head, one in which the fire, or the firefighters, would be allowed to burn through an unprecedented amount of timber. Victory through retreat.
Lohrey believed in surrounding himself with take-charge leaders who would solve day-to-day problems on their own. His job was to craft an overall strategy and to set the tone, even when events turned chaotic. “You have to be calm,” he said. “You have to be the calm in the eye of the storm.”
The First Day
Just before 6 a.m., Lohrey walked through the hodgepodge of tents and equipment that the firefighters had instantly dubbed Yurt City. At the other end of the fire camp, 100 firefighters in Nomex-branch directors, division superintendents, and crew bosses-gathered under some tall ponderosa pines. They would, they hoped, lead Lohrey’s 1,546 firefighters to the rescue of the Illinois Valley.
One by one, Lohrey’s chiefs delivered the latest intelligence on Florence’s movements. The first report was bad: A shift in the winds had postponed a burnout needed to protect Selma from the advancing flames.
On the plywood podium, a meteorologist recited the brutal weather forecast: sunny, hot, and a red-flag warning for northeast winds.
Then, Erik Christiansen, the team’s fire behavior analyst, went through the basic variables: wind, humidity, temperature, and the fire’s heat. All were at historic levels for the Siskiyou National Forest-conditions perfect for explosive fire spread. It had been several days since Florence had spun up a plume, but Christiansen said it could happen again by afternoon.
Lohrey’s operations chief described the day’s work ahead, pointing to a big map tacked to a plywood stand. Firefighters were preparing for a massive burnout on a curved line that stretched 30 miles (48 km) along the eastern edge of the fire. The plan was to stop Florence’s advance to the east by blackening nearly 200 square miles (518 km2) of forest.
Lohrey had never come close to attempting a burnout of this size. Once, in New Mexico, he had considered torching 39 square miles (101 km2), but the sheer scope of the operation had given him pause. Then the winds had changed, and he had chosen direct attack.
Everyone present understood the risks. A sudden shift in wind, and the burnout could turn on the firefighters and the Illinois Valley. Lohrey was not much for inspirational speeches, preferring to lead by example. This was his first day as the new commander, a risky moment. Lives could be endangered by a missed communication.
Firefighter firing off an incendiary flare to aid in a burnout operation on the Biscuit Fire.
“Today the emphasis needs to be on making sure you give clear orders,” he told his aides. “And that you understand the instructions you’re given. It’s going to be a long season,” he added. “It already has been.”
The First Burnout
After the meeting, Lohrey and his operations and planning chiefs gathered at the large map. He listened intently as they pointed to the immediate dangers, but then his eyes slid toward areas miles away from the front line. It was Lohrey’s job to think days, even weeks ahead, to figure out every move the fire might make and to get there first.
Already, he’d sent a team of fire managers to Gold Beach to prepare a new fire camp for another type 1 team that would eventually protect communities on the Oregon coast. At dusk, his crews began burning the fireline that would protect Selma. The aim was to create a blackened band that would halt Florence in its tracks.
The wind fanned the flames on the ground, pushing fire upslope through grasses on the forest floor and into brush. Here and there, a tree caught fire, flaming up with a brilliant flare that quickly disappeared. Soon all the ridges northeast of Selma glittered orange as stars sparkled in the night sky.
The next morning, Lohrey’s crews moved onto the blackened ground to make sure wind couldn’t whip the fire back to life. Timber cutters downed fire-weakened trees and snags that could fall on firefighters working below. Ground crews followed with water to douse logs still burning on the ground and tree roots burning underground. Some of the firefighters removed their thick leather gloves and ran their hands along the ground, seeking tactile confirmation that the ashes were cold. When they were done, they had created a dead zone half a mile (0.8 km) wide, broad enough to stop Florence at its most fierce.
Meanwhile, Florence probed an entirely different corner of the map. The flames had licked to within 5 miles (8 km) of Agness, a hamlet near the confluence of the Illinois and Rogue Rivers.
At that morning’s briefing, the meteorologist forecasted cooler temperatures with a chance of rain. The report was not welcome. A splash of rain would not stop Florence; the fire was hot enough to dry its own fuel as it pushed through the woods. Rain, however, would make the burnouts much tougher. Lohrey was racing the weather, as well as Florence.
The Sacrifice Line
Tom Link was the acting district ranger on the Illinois Valley Ranger District when Florence reared its head. A career timber manager, Link had hiked most trails in the oldgrowth forest. He knew its rivers, streams, and peaks the way some people know their home town.
On August 2, Lohrey came to his office carrying a plan for letting much of the surrounding forest burn. The two men spread a map of the national forest, and Link peered at the jagged circle drawn around the edges that marked how much of his district would have to be surrendered to quell this monstrous blaze.
Explosive charge detonating to clear a quarter-mile fireline on the Biscuit Fire.
The line was huge-405 miles (652 km) long-and the area within it beyond imagining-500,000 acres (200,000 ha), or 781 square miles (2,023 km2), an expanse larger than Washington County, OR.
Florence had already burned through 165,000 acres (67,000 ha). Lohrey was recommending that firefighters deliberately double or triple the amount of burned forest. Link looked glum. He pressed Lohrey to save more.
Lohrey wouldn’t budge. The amount of territory to be surrendered had to be huge because firefighters would need that much time to build a wideenough cordon around the fire. Both men knew that the previous plans had drawn much tighter lines, which Florence had skipped over with ease.
“Worst case is worst case,” he told Link. “That’s what you have to think of.”
“We’ve gone through a couple of worst cases already,” replied Link, weary after 3 exhausting weeks fighting Florence. “We’ve had a mindexpansion process in what we think is bad.\”
Lohrey needed the district ranger to approve his plan, but Link was unpersuaded. Wasn’t Lohrey giving Florence too much room?
“The reality is, 500,000 acres [200,000 ha] is not unreasonable given the time of the year, and where we are in the season, and how much fire we’ve got,” Lohrey replied.
“Fires are not unlike floods. People’s memories are short,” said Lohrey, who compared Florence to a hundred-year flood. Living memory- 50 years-”is a short timespan for the way these things happen,” he said.
Link stared at the map silently, his eyes darting from ridge to peak to creek to forest road. He nodded. Lohrey had his approval.
That night, Link had second thoughts. He approached Lohrey after an evening meeting at Yurt City and walked him to the map. Would it be possible to slide the line in two environmentally sensitive areas: the southeastern corner of the forest, a habitat for rare plants that grow only in the Siskiyou Mountains; and a stretch of land north of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness that was home to 49 pairs of northern spotted owls?
“That’s a big burnout,” Link said, referring to the plans for the south. “It’s a question I’m going to get from the public. Why did we need to burn out 8 miles [13km]?”
Lohrey respectfully declined. Shifting the burn line would leave open a backdoor route for Florence to escape and encircle the Illinois Valley.
“I don’t want to leave the back door open,” Link agreed.
The situation was little better in the north. If the line was closer and Florence jumped it, the road to Grants Pass would be wide open. The terrain would drive the fire toward the town.
Link traced the topographical map with his fingers. Lohrey had a point. “The ridges are all the wrong way,” Link said.
The debate was over. The sacrifice line had been drawn.
Slamming the Back Door
Over the next 4 days, Lohrey’s crews worked to build the first 30 miles (48 km) of fireline. It was a staggering project. No Federal fire manager had ever attempted to create a cordon of this size.
Day and night, the burnouts continued, looping around threatened homes near Selma, Kerby, Cave Junction, and O’Brien. Florence continued to test the defenses, throwing up columns that threatened to become full-fledged plumes. But none did. The rains that had worried Lohrey failed to materialize. The temperature dropped, delaying some of the burnouts.
On August 7, the firefighters marked a historic occasion. The bulldozers scraping the fireline northward from the smaller Sour Biscuit blaze kissed blades with the bulldozers plowing south from the Florence Fire. Within days, the fires united, merging into a single titanic conflagration. Lohrey and the fire managers retired the name Sour Biscuit. At that point, the historic 2002 wildfires in southwestern Oregon all became known as Florence.
The fire mounted one last charge along the eastern front, just where Lohrey had feared it might. The flames advanced toward U.S. Route 199, angling for a 2-mile (3.2-km) hole in the line. This was the “back door” that Link and Lohrey had worried about in their conversation days earlier.
The following afternoon, Florence charged the line. Fanned by northeast winds, she crossed the fireline along a narrow 6-mile (9.6- km) stretch. Lohrey’s firefighters had fire in their faces. For the first time since Lohrey took charge 9 days earlier, his crews retreated and began a new fireline.
Lohrey considered a daring countermove: going on the attack against the implacable blaze. He now had hotshots galore. But even the Nation’s best wildland firefighters couldn’t attack a fire kicked up by those northeast winds.
Two days later, the winds shifted enough to allow a direct assault on the fire. Helicopters dropped bucket after bucket of water on the flames, and then 80 hotshots moved off the forest road into the rocky drainage of Whiskey Creek, backed by four experienced Forest Service hand crews. The hotshots worked a 12-hour shift through the night, tearing down trees and brush with hand tools and chain saws. By daybreak, the line extended 2,000 feet (610 m).
Lohrey sent in fresh crews the next morning. The winds cooperated, and within 24 hours the back door had been slammed shut, completing the 30-mile (48-km) line.
The Illinois Valley was safe. For the first time since his arrival, Lohrey felt confident that he had the upper hand on Florence.
Lohrey left the valley on August 13 and headed home to Portland. The fire was not yet fully corralled; much work remained to be done along its northern and western flanks. But the most serious danger had passed.
Fire managers declared the fire contained on September 5-54 days after lightning had struck near Florence Creek. The official fire size, determined by aerial mapping, was set at 499,570 acres (202,169 ha). The worst-case scenario Lohrey outlined for Link in August had turned out to be all too true.
In the end, the damage to property and people was startlingly small. Florence claimed four summer cabins, nine outbuildings, and the historic Snow Camp Mountain lookout.
Experts are continuing to study Florence’s toll on the Siskiyou National Forest. An estimated 38 percent of the 500,000 acres (200,000) within the fireline was reduced to charcoal and ash. The trees left standing in this blackened moonscape are all dead. Another 41 percent of the land was less severely damaged, and ecologists think the thinning will eventually improve forest health. About 20 percent of the land within Lohrey’s sacrifice line did not burn at all.
Sign posted along the road to fire camp on the Biscuit Fire, August 2002.
The experience of battling the Florence Fire calls into question the priorities that drive national firefighting. Longstanding policy requires protecting people and buildings first. When Florence was burning in uninhabited timber, fire managers attacked other fires that posed a more immediate threat to homes and subdivisions. Usually, that sort of policy makes perfect sense. But in this case, it allowed Florence to grow so big and hot that it became almost impossible to stop, eventually threatening the entire Illinois Valley.
The problem has been compounded by 80 years of suppressing wildland fires, which have left many forests choked with fuel. A wave of lightning strikes on a hot summer day can overwhelm the fire crews assigned to snuff out small fires before they become conflagrations.
Fire managers have acknowledged that they were stretched thin by an outbreak of wildfires across 11 States and missed an early chance to put out the Florence blaze. Helitack crews and smokejumpers in the region had already been sent to fires elsewhere in the West. Fire managers say that they are reevaluating their strategies for attacking wildfires in light of what they learned during 2002 in Oregon.
Today’s tinder-packed forests burn hotter and faster, making traditional frontal attacks on fires more difficult. The tactic that eventually contained the blaze in southwestern Oregon-penning the fire within a vast perimeter-involved surrendering more forest to the flames than had ever been accepted before.
The firefighters relied on a proven approach-burning the fuel in front of the advancing flames. But they did so on a larger scale than had ever been attempted anywhere in the United States and in circumstances that left no margin for error.
“There was at least a week or two there,” Gilpin said, “that I felt there was a good chance we could lose either the Illinois Valley or a big portion of it.”
A Flammable World
Lohrey gave up more acres than firefighters were accustomed to surrendering, but he had no second thoughts. Relinquishing a half- million acres, he thought, was better for the forest, cheaper for the taxpayers, and safer for the firefighters.
His contest with Florence had been closely fought, and Lohrey knew that good fortune had played a role. At the most critical moments, the winds blew in exactly the right directions. “We could have been in trouble,” he said. “It could have been a lot bigger.”
Lohrey feels certain the forests of the West will spawn more Florences. The woods are packed with fuel, the legacy of generations of suppressing fire.
“It’s a flammable world,” he said. “Fires need to burn and will burn.”
Nearly 7,000 of the Nation’s best firefighters defied the odds and held off an inferno that threatened hundreds of square miles and thousands of homes.
Local crews could fight small fires, but not three blazes that were miles apart, each burning through roadless areas.
The watchword among fire managers was “safety first,” and they wouldn’t risk lives to protect an uninhabited forest.
Fire managers have acknowledged that they were stretched thin by an outbreak of wildfires across 11 States and missed an early chance to put out the Florence blaze.
With today’s huge fuel loads, fires in rough country such as the Kalmiopsis Wilderness can easily overrun directattack firelines.
When the plume topped 25,000 feet, it would collapse, spewing embers miles from the fire’s leading edge.
Florence assaulted Oak Flat with 100-foot flames, searing heat, and powerful winds that launched spot fires 2 miles ahead of the flame front.
Along a 20-mile stretch of U.S. Route 199, the view to the west was an ominous string of plumes towering over the valley.
A sudden shift in wind, and the burnout could turn on the firefighters and the Illinois Valley.
The amount of territory to be surrendered had to be huge because firefighters would need that much time to build a wide-enough cordon around the fire.
An estimated 38 percent of the 500,000 acres within the fire perimeter was reduced to charcoal and ash.
* The article is based on a series that appeared in The Oregonian (Portland, OR) on November 2, 3, and 4, 2002. Reporter Alex Pulaski and researchers Lynne Palombo and Kathleen Blythe of The Oregonian staff contributed to the series.
** Florence became Biscuit to avoid public confusionabout the location of the fire. Some people wondered whether the fire was near Florence, a community adjacent to the popular Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area on the Siuslaw National Forest. Consistent with normal nomenclature for wildfires, this article refers to the fire for the most part as Florence.
Beth Quinn is a southern Oregon correspondent for The Oregonian, Portland, OR.
Copyright Superintendent of Documents Spring 2005