GAO Report on Chetco Bar Fire

I’ll be interested in comments on the report from folks who know more about the fire than I do….

What GAO Found
The Chetco Bar Fire was first reported in July 2017, burning in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in Oregon. Because of the remote, steep terrain, initial Forest Service attempts to fight the fire at close range were unsuccessful. The fire grew slowly over the next month. Firefighters, directed by the Forest Service, responded in various ways, such as by constructing “firelines”—clearing vegetation—in an effort to stop the fire’s spread. In mid-August, strong, hot winds caused the fire to expand rapidly, from 8,500 acres to more than 90,000 acres over several days, threatening thousands of homes. Firefighters continued constructing firelines and dropped water and retardant on the fire to try to contain it. In September, the weather changed and cooler days and rain moderated the fire. Firefighers fully contained the fire in November (see figure).

Forest Service officials and stakeholders raised a number of key concerns about the Forest Service’s response to the Chetco Bar Fire. For example, some said that if the Forest Service’s response had been more aggressive, it might have kept the fire from growing and threatening homes. Forest Service officials said that in making firefighting decisions, they prioritized firefighter safety and considered the likelihood that a particular response would be successful. The agency has taken steps to improve decision-making for future wildfires, such as developing a tradeoff analysis tool to help decision makers assess firefighting options.

Forest Service officials, stakeholders, and documents identifed various effects of the fire. Some of these sources cited negative effects including destruction of six homes, damage to roads and trails, and damage to habitat for the northern spotted owl. However, the fire likely improved habitat for some species, such as woodpeckers that eat beetles that feed on burned trees, according to officials.

12 thoughts on “GAO Report on Chetco Bar Fire”

  1. I’ve read the report. It’s interesting. It doesn’t really cast any blame on the Forest Service or other decision makers, which I’m sure won’t satisfy those who want to blame the agency for its actions or lack thereof. The report highlights the lack of resources, the variable and difficult terrain, and weather phenomenon (here, “the Chetco effect”) that is impossible to control or even really predict. The bottom line seems to be “this is really dangerous country to fight fire, and decisions are made in the heat of the moment that can’t and won’t please everyone.” That’s about right, in my experience with fire and as an Oregonian.

  2. “and damage to habitat for the northern spotted owl. However, the fire likely improved habitat for some species, such as woodpeckers that eat beetles that feed on burned trees, according to officials.”

    I am not an NSO expert, but I think it takes a while for NSO habitat to grow back (old growth), possibly longer than the woodpeckers will enjoy the beetles from burned trees.

    And it will be interesting to see if a “tradeoff analysis tool” does better than the informed judgment of fire folks.

    • Actually, research indicates that northern (and California) spotted owls use recently burned forests fairly regularly. That use changes over time and varies with the severity of the burn, but recently burned forests are not categorically unsuitable NSO habitat. I’d be happy to make those studies available to TSW.

      • I think we’ve discussed before on TSW that the answer about owls and fire is “it depends” and “it’s controversial” and “what was the intensity” and “what is the timeframe you’re looking at”? (spatial and temporal scale), habitat for what owl activity (nesting, foraging, etc.) and “scientists disagree.”

        Here’s what the GAO said (or rather what the FS said to GAO):

        “In the short-term, the Chetco Bar Fire killed or damaged habitat for many wildlife species, although the exact effect of the fire on wildlife is unknown, according to a Forest Service official. Most wildlife species are expected to recover, but the effects on some threatened and sensitive species could be longer lasting, according to Forest Service documents and officials. For example, half of the 13 known northern spotted owls—a
        species that is federally listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act—living within the perimeter of the fire were estimated to have died from the fire, according to a Forest Service biologist.

        In addition, this biologist said the fire’s effect on the population of a seabird called the as well as on two mammals—Pacific marten and fisher—is unknown, although it negatively affected their habitats.

        National forest officials said the Chetco Bar Fire also likely benefited some wildlife species because the mosaic landscape resulting from the fire is preferred by some wildlife, including deer, elk, migratory birds, butterflies, and woodpeckers. For example, black-backed woodpeckers thrive in partly burned areas because they eat wood-boring beetles that feed on recently burned trees.”

        All that being said, links to studies are always appreciated!

        • Here’s a start on that NSO use of burned forests literature (most are available online):

          Hanson CT, Bond ML, Lee DE. 2018. Effects of post-fire logging on California spotted owl occupancy. Nature Conservation 24:93-105.

          Bond ML, Bradley C, Lee DE. 2016. Foraging habitat selection by California spotted owls after fire. Journal of Wildlife Management 80:1290-1300

          Lee DE, Bond ML 2015. Previous year’s reproductive state affects Spotted Owl site occupancy and reproduction responses to natural and anthropogenic disturbances. The Condor 117:307-319.

          Lee DE, Bond ML 2015. Occupancy of California Spotted Owl sites following a large fire in the Sierra Nevada, California. The Condor 117:228-236.

          Lee DE, Bond ML, Borchert MI, Tanner R. 2013. Influence of fire and salvage logging on site occupancy of spotted owls in the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains of Southern California. Journal of Wildlife Management 77:1327-1341.

          Bond ML, Lee DE, Siegel RB, Tingley MW 2013. Diet and home-range size of California spotted owls in a burned forest. Western Birds 44:114–126.

          Lee, DE, Bond ML, Siegel RB 2012. Dynamics of California Spotted Owl breeding-season site occupancy in burned forests. The Condor 114:792-802.

          Bond ML, Lee DE, Siegel RB 2010. Winter movements by California spotted owls in a burned landscape. Western Birds 41:174-180.

          Bond ML, Lee DE, Siegel RB, Ward, JP Jr 2009. Habitat selection and use by California spotted owls in a post-fire landscape. Journal of Wildlife Management 73:1116-1124.

          Bond ML, Gutiérrez RJ, Franklin AB, LaHaye WS, May CA, Seamans ME 2002. Short-term effects of wildfires on spotted owl survival, site fidelity, mate fidelity, and reproduction. Wildlife Society Bulletin 30:1022-1028.

          • Thank you for providing these – it looks like these references are primarily for California spotted owl and not northern spotted owl? I am never sure how much information on California owl can be applied to northern spotted owl.

            • I question the value of having mere ‘occupation’ of spotted owl in burned landscapes. It means very little to see an owl, outside of its nesting habitats. Owls in California range far and wide to live their lives, with nesting habitats being the important/endangered parts of their habitat. CASPO foraging habitats vary widely and are not rare, or needing of ‘protections’. You cannot lump their foraging habitats in with their protected nesting habitats, and there is no lack of snags on the Sierra Nevada.

  3. If the Forest Service had been more aggressive, we could easily be having the opposite argument (which we have had too often) about why decisions were made that killed firefighters. Especially if the answer were “to save spotted owls.” (I wonder what the algorithm in the trade-off analysis tool says the value of a human life is; maybe they borrowed it from the COVID-19 model.)

  4. I have spent a fair amount of time in Chetco Bar burn area. The devastation to the young and old growth forests that burned is unimaginable. It is actually very upsetting to see. I can never reconcile myself with those who insist fire is good for the forest.
    I do believe that it represents FS fire fighting ideology at its worst.
    For over a month of “fire fighting” they let a 3/4 acre fire eventually turn into a fire storm. It was never a question weather the east winds would blow, “the Checto effect”, but when. It is apparent they did nothing to prepare for it.
    There are now thousands of acres of what were rare and very healthy old growth forests that no longer exist. Entire stands were totally killed by this fire. I have seen whole watersheds, that were once forests of rare and endangered species, of incredible beauty, now reduced to low growing brush.
    No amount of woodpeckers are worth the annihilation of our old growth and young forests that took place in Chetco Bar fire. It didn’t have to be this way.


Leave a Comment