Beachie Creek Fire Postmortem

Interesting story in the Salem, Oregon, Statesman-Journal.

“‘Missed opportunity?’ Records detail Forest Service response to Beachie Creek Fire before blowup.”

The fire started in a wilderness area.

The Statesman Journal looked at multiple records called “fire decision documents” from the earliest days of the fire, along with daily public records and information released by the Forest Service last week to create a detailed narrative. Among the findings:

  • After an initial attack that attempted to put the fire out, crews stepped back and didn’t drop water for nine of 10 days from Aug. 21 to Aug. 30.
  • Smokejumpers, hotshot crews and a rappel team attempted to access the fire, but it was deemed beyond the “realm of acceptable risk,” leading to a containment strategy.
  • Crews wrote on Aug. 21 that the containment strategy “is vulnerable to resource availability and to critical fire weather events (east winds for example).”
  • Later, the Forest Service said calls for additional resources went unanswered even as historically dangerous east winds and fire danger arrived — the two things they feared.
  • Independent and retired fire experts who looked at the response were mixed in their assessment. Some said the agency did the best it could given a difficult, dangerous fire location — and limited resources — while others said fire crews were too cautious and should have stayed more aggressive.

Note that this was an extreme fire season in the west, especially in Oregon. Resources were stretched.

The fire burned nearly 200,000 acres of land, destroyed homes in Detroit, Gates, and Mill City, and killed five people.


14 thoughts on “Beachie Creek Fire Postmortem”

  1. Hi Steve, There is ample evidence that a significant portion of what burned during those wind-whipped Labor Day weekend fires was the direct result of downed power lines starting new fires. The framing you used here makes no mention of that fact. I’m not sure if that was just an innocent oversight, or intentional.

    However, the same article you are quoting said this:

    “A third firestorm was ignited by downed power lines in towns such as Gates and Mill City — known as the Santiam Fire — and was blamed by firefighters for widespread impact within towns and cities.”

    Yet, you clearly make it seem like the “wilderness” fire was the one that did this.

    • Matthew, welcome back. I was introducing the article for a discussion here, not trying to frame any issues. The article mentions ignitions caused by power lines several times, so I don’t understand what you’re getting at.

      • Thanks Steve, but I haven’t gone anywhere. I couldn’t be more clear in my comment above, so not sure why you don’t understand what I’m getting at.

    • Thank you for pointing this out/adding it to the discussion. The initial post seemed to be pointing at the Forest Service as the reason for what came to be called the Beachie Creek Fire once the fire was out, but the situation is more complex than that with several other fires starting during the wind event over Labor Day in addition to the “original” Beachie Creek Fire that started before the Labor Day fires in 2020. The initial post omitted that context.

  2. While not west-central Oregon, there has been anecdotal, and reliable, evidence shown that the Creek Fire spotted 1-2 miles ahead of the main fire front, during the same Labor Day wind event in 2020.
    There has also been peer-reviewed research that the Creek Fire behaved far outside of the norm of fire behavior/fire models, albeit driven by both wind and tree mortality (and not west-central Oregon).

    I don’t think it is out of the realm of possibility that a wilderness fire could do what some in the article claim, especially as resources dwindle down and fires ignite all over. Personally, my gut feeling would be that a Pacific Power line is to blame, but, that is why there are investigations done using credible methodology and investigators – the 2017 Tubbs Fire in California, for instance, was not PG&E (despite a very strong belief it was for a couple years) but rather a private electrical system that initiated the fire (and then fanned by record winds)

    That said, I struggle a lot with lighting-ignited fires and immediate suppression. They are natural. They should be allowed to burn, with iron-clad plans and preparation for when they begin to encroach on private property and communities. Glad I don’t have that job to decide.
    There are also strong considerations for context, such as fire history and drought – 2020/21/22, at least in much of the West, it made sense to stomp out fires, as the benefit to cost ratio of that fire exploding under a wind event is not favorable (see the McKinney Fire, Tamarack Fire, which has it’s own baggage of course) [and insert comment about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic with climate change, which is real and effects us all].
    Plus, the human element:
    (Note the quotes from the accomplished scientist who many like to disparage as pro-timber).

    In the end, can we call the 2020 Oregon Wildfires that initiated on Labor Day a recurrence that is normal (Tillamook Burn, maybe Yacolt Burn in WA)? The debate on the source, of which has not been 110% identified yet to my knowledge, and what they mean for society (it’s not 1900 anymore), seem more important.

  3. Jury finds PacifiCorp at fault for Santiam Canyon, Labor Day fires
    By Zach Urness, Salem Statesman Journal (6/12/2023)

    A jury Monday found PacifiCorp liable for causing four of the devastating Labor Day wildfires in 2020 that burned a combined 2,500 properties and upended countless lives in the Santiam Canyon, Lincoln City area and southern Oregon.

    The 12-person jury found PacifiCorp negligent on all major counts, including gross negligence, for causing the Santiam, Echo Mountain, 242 and South Obenchain fires. The seven-week class action trial against Oregon’s second-largest utility was held at Multnomah County Courthouse.

    The jury found PacifiCorp caused harm and was negligent to an entire class in the Santiam Canyon, Lincoln City and southern Oregon areas. That means anyone whose home or property was burned in the fires in those areas, even if they were not part of the lawsuit, could potentially get financial relief in a second phase of the trial.

    Full story:

    • Hi Matthew:

      Wherever there are people there is a source of ignition. It doesn’t matter if the ignition was caused by electricity, building a campfire, cooking, smoking, starting a motor, or arson — without fuel there is no fire. The the severity and extent of the Labor Day Fires were a direct result of gross mismanagement of our public forests over the past 35 years, as clearly predicted. The fires may have “started” by an electrical short (debatable), but the severity and extent were “caused” by passive management of federal forest fuels, including highly flammable snags and “LWD” or “CWD” (government speak for Large, Woody Debris and Coarse, Woody Debris; aka, “ground fuels”).

      Why weren’t these events taking place between 1952 and 1987? Wasn’t PGE selling electricity to people during those decades, too?

      • Maybe they were, but it wasn’t as hot, dry or windy 50 years ago (and there were 50 fewer years of fire suppression).

        • Jonathon: Yes, it was just as windy, hot, and dry 50 years ago, and 500 years ago, too. Also 5,000, etc. “Maybes” and fire suppression don’t alter the facts.

  4. Jury hits PacifiCorp with punitive damages in Labor Day fires trial, increasing payout to victims
    By Zach Urness, Salem Statesman Journal (6/14/2023)

    A jury decided Wednesday that PacifiCorp should pay additional money to victims of four of Oregon’s Labor Day Fires by imposing punitive damages on the utility.

    The verdict was essentially a rebuke of PacifiCorp’s actions the night of Labor Day 2020 for its role in igniting wildfires that destroyed thousands of homes and upended countless lives in the Santiam Canyon, Lincoln City area and in southern Oregon.

    The jury ruled this week that PacifiCorp was liable for the Santiam, Echo Mountain, 242 and South Obenchain wildfires and must pay out more than $73 million to 17 plaintiffs, in addition to damages to about 5,000 class members.

    Full story:

    • Matthew,
      Having read the article, not really disputing the cause and outcome, but I know in other states and fires, there is an investigation into the direct cause of the fire (typically by a state or Federal agency and its respective investigators). Does that exist anywhere? I did not see any links in either article you linked to.
      Just curious if this is a strictly a lawyer/trial/jury event, or if there is also an actual investigation and facts from a non-judiciary entity. Again, I don’t doubt the outcome and cause. Pacific Corp is likely not excited about a similar outcome with the McKinney Fire in northern California.


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