AFRC: Fuel Reduction Supports Firefighters, Protects Communities During Oregon’s Flat Fire

This is from AFRC’s August 2023 newsletter. It reminds me of shaded fuel breaks I helped maintain many years ago on the El Dorado NF, using Rx fire and/or mechanical brush removal (AKA grunt work projects — fire crews with chainsaws). Here’s a good video about these fuel breaks and the 2021 Caldor Fire.


Fuel Reduction Supports Firefighters, Protects Communities During Oregon’s Flat Fire

Fuel reduction projects are often maligned by those who oppose active forest management. Critics point to the fact that, during certain conditions, no amount of fuels reduction will stop large fires from burning out of control. Although evidence suggests that fuels-reduction projects and timber sales can have a moderating effect on fire behavior during even the largest conflagrations; it is true that when conditions become extreme, a 200-foot fuel break will have little ability to “stop” a fire.

Where anti-forestry groups miss the mark on fuel reduction projects is in judging their effectiveness where it counts – during active firing operations. Such is the case on the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest, where years of fuel reduction work and strategic timber sales have given firefighting personnel a leg-up in their effort to control the 2023 Flat Fire.

The Flat Fire started on July 15 in the Oak Flat Campground near the town of Agness, Oregon. Strong winds, hot and dry conditions, and an abundance of snags and brush leftover from the 2002 Biscuit Fire, enabled early growth on the Flat Fire. Within a week over 20,000 acres had burned and there was a real threat that the fire could push into Agness or Gold Beach if left un-checked. Snags not only provided easily combustible fuel for the fire, but they also complicate firefighting efforts as crews cannot mobilize where the risk of overhead hazards are too high. Simply-put: due to the fuel loads, the forecasted weather, proximity to communities, and the occurrence of the fire so early in the season, the Flat Fire threatened to become an historic conflagration.

Fortunately, the Flat Fire started near a ridgeline that the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest had long identified as a critical control point within their boundary. Wildhorse Ridge begins above the confluence of the Rogue and Illinois Rivers near Agness and extends south for about 19 miles, before terminating near the confluence of the Pistol and North Fork Pistol Rivers. As a strategic control point, Wildhorse Ridge is the first line of defense between fires coming out of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and the town of Gold Beach.

The importance of Wildhorse Ridge played out in 2002 during the Biscuit Fire, where crews were able to contain the fire’s westward advance along Wildhorse Ridge, thus preventing continued destruction of public and private resources during what was (at the time) the largest wildfire in state history. Although much of the forested area between the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and Wildhorse Ridge had burned completely during the Biscuit Fire, many green islands of lightly burned timber remained.

Following the Biscuit Fire, the strategic importance of Wildhorse Ridge was increased as it now not only protected Gold Beach, but also an immense swath of unburned timberland of mixed public and private ownership. To bolster the ridgeline’s defense, and to impart greater resilience within the moderately-burned green islands, the Forest began a series of timber sales and fuels reduction projects along this ridgeline starting in 2006. The aim of these projects varied from non-commercial fuels reduction to conventional timber sales via commercial thinning. These projects were also designed to ensure that that roads across the ridge remained in drivable condition in the event of necessary emergency response.

The effectiveness of these projects was tested this summer during the early days of the Flat Fire, and it didn’t take long before the value of these treatments became clear. As the fire broke out, firefighting personnel were able to utilize the roadway to quickly gain access to the fire’s origin and establish an anchor point, preventing spread towards Agness. As the fire progressed south, Wildhorse Ridge became an invaluable resource to move personnel in and out safely. Treatments along the ridge made it possible for firefighters to safely backfire into the main fire and eliminate flashier fuels between the main fire and the ridge without the risk of putting fire into overgrown fuels.

The Forest was also able to take advantage of some breaks along the way. The 2018 Klondike fire afforded the Forest the opportunity to reopen containment lines along the fire’s eastern front, and weather moderated at pivotal points to allow firefighters to gain ground on the fire. But while good fortune can be a saving grace during fire season, nothing compares to hard work and preparation. The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest was well-prepared to utilize Wildhorse Ridge during the Flat Fire because of their own hard work.

It’s still too early to predict the final impacts of the 2023 Flat Fire. The fire continues to burn, and there is no end in sight for the year’s fire season. But as of August 28, the Flat Fire is 34,242 acres, 58% contained and has grown very little in the past few weeks. This comes as a welcome relief as the Forest must divert resources to their Wild Rivers Ranger District, where the Six Rivers Complex along the OR/CA border continues to advance into Oregon.

If the Rogue River-Siskiyou can hold the fire in place through the season, the Forest should be a model for federal land managers who have been tasked with preparing their forests to withstand the effects of unprecedented global climate change. Fortune favors those who are willing to work for it. /Corey Bingamen

7 thoughts on “AFRC: Fuel Reduction Supports Firefighters, Protects Communities During Oregon’s Flat Fire”

  1. What do y’all think about the relative merits of fuel breaks as opposed to PODs? I’m a PODs guy but recognize that is all pretty complex. Perhaps the answer is location dependent.

    • Hi Rich: I think the PODS approach is too expensive and of very limited value. When I went to the official PODS page as it was being introduced, I saw a lot of talking heads, computers, and a bunch of people gathered around a table with maps. Seemed like a pretty bureaucratic way to deal with topography and land access in advance of expected wildfires. And why not a related focus on reforestation, forest, and wildlife management?

      Before rectangular surveys and PODS there were always subbasins. For thousands of years trails followed ridgelines and riparian areas. Roads followed these routes, with connective links between ridges and waterways varying over time as foot trails gave way to pack animals and then wheels. This pattern continues to hold true today for both basin-scale rivers and lakes and for the subbasin-scale named creeks that are their tributaries.

      In western Oregon, named creek subbasins are typically several hundred to a few thousand acres in size and riparian roads lead to fishing holes, waterfalls, and campsites, while ridgeline roads lead to logging towers, scenic viewpoints, huckleberry fields, and the next town. Access is known, proven, efficient, and mostly already in place and on maps.

      Almost all plants, whether wildflowers or old-growth, and most birds, fish, and small mammals — factoring in infant and juvenile mortality — spend their entire lives in a single subbasin. That means that virtually every subbasin in western Oregon has had at one time — and before the artificial creation of roadless areas, Wildernesses, LSRs, HCPs, ETCs — good roads and trails along the rivers, creeks, lakesides, and ridgelines that people have created and plants and animals have adapted to. It also means that almost all products and all potential fuels are known and have been readily accessible during historical time.

      Fire, whether wild or prescribed, is dependent on weather, fuel, topography, and ignition. People can control fuels and ignition, with the exceptions of volcanoes and lightning — and the latter typically take place in known locations, and mostly during known times of the year. For these reasons, both wildfire and prescribed broadcast burns are bounded by ridgeline and riparian roads and trails and the fuels contained between them. The Flat Fire, for example has been maintained so far by ridgeline roads that surround the Lawson Creek subbasin tributary to the Rogue River. Lawson Creek, in turn, is comprised of several smaller subbasins with similar access characteristics.

      If historic roads and trails along our rivers, creeks, and ridgelines are maintained in good condition, there is no need for expensive and complicated PODS, and a far greater ability to manage the plants and animals that might otherwise become fuels for wildfires — as we have been witnessing for the past 35+ years of federal forestry practices. If we are serious about ending this glut of predictable wildfires, then a return to the active management of our forest resources and related access routes should be the first step. Needed tax-producing jobs, better schools, fewer catastrophic wildfires, and safer campgrounds and wildlife will follow. In my opinion, based on documented history.

    • I think it depends on the area. To me, PODs different treatments on the landscape (shaded fuel breaks, prescribed burns, other kinds of fuel breaks) based on local folks’, fuels practitioners, and fire suppression folks’ knowledge of where fires are likely to start, what kinds of conditions (winds from which direction at what times/seasons) and so on. Now it could be that that is already known for some areas, or is manifestly obvious (ridgelines in SW Oregon?) but in other places may not be so obvious. But I will ask an expert.

  2. Interesting that there is no mention of any opposition to the Rogue’s management actions here. (I’m sure if there were any lawsuits we would have been told that.) Ideally, management of areas for fire control would have been debated and decided in the forest plan.

    • Yup, I think a forest plan fire amendment with ongoing veg management strategies approved via an EIS would be just the ticket. Except it would probably get litigated. And then a judge could possible enjoin any activities.. interesting to think about.

    • There was some opposition to the Wildhorse Ridge timber sales – mostly because they were “mature” stands and some environmental groups did not want any trees larger than 16″ dbh to be cut.

      It is also worth mentioning here that with all of the firelines and continency lines associated with the Biscuit Fire in 2002 (there were more than 500 miles of fireline for that fire) that the Biscuit Fire Recovery Plan identified fuel breaks/firelines that should be maintained, including those in the Wildhorse Ridge area – this was in 2003 – 20 years ago. Some of those fuel breaks/contingency lines that were associated with the Biscuit Fire have been used 3 times now (maybe 4 with the Flat Fire – I’ve lost count).

      • This establishment of areas where fuel breaks/firelines are to be maintained as such probably should have been a forest plan amendment.


Leave a Comment

Discover more from The Smokey Wire : National Forest News and Views

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading