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Ten years after: the Biscuit fire revisited

By George Sexton
Mail Tribune

It's been nearly 10 years since the July 2002 lightning storm that sparked the 500,000 acre Biscuit fire.

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For many of us in Southern Oregon, the Biscuit fire was a defining event - beloved forests were drastically altered, the politics of logging and wildlands protection were turned on their heads and the realities of living in a fire-evolved landscape came home to roost.

Ten years ago Biscuit was often viewed through the lens of pre-existing prejudices. Loggers saw the fire as a waste of marketable wood fiber. Environmentalists saw the fire as a natural process that would be exploited to log otherwise protected forests. Perhaps with the passage of time it is now possible to look back more objectively at Biscuit and the political firestorm that followed in its wake.

How did the fire burn?

For some it has become an article of faith that the lightning storm of July 2002 started a natural wildlfire that blasted through the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. What tends to be forgotten is that thousands of acres of intense fire behavior were the result of deliberate backburning and burnout operations by the Forest Service.

The agency's 2003 Post-Fire Assessment found that the severe fire activity closest to the Illinois Valley communities was the result of intentional backfiring. Similarly, the portion of the fire that consumed several homes and structures around Oak Flat was started as intentional burnout. In the backcountry the Forest Service utilized aerial incendiary "ping pong balls" (potassium permanganate pellets) to blacken thousands of acres of green forest islands amid the larger fire.

Everyone recognizes that the Forest Service was doing the best it could in a very difficult situation. The point here is that fire behavior in Biscuit was the result of a number of complex factors that included drought, weather, topography, and Forest Service ignition.

Even with the extreme conditions present at the time, the fire did not uniformly blacken the landscape, rather it burned in all severity classes in a mosaic pattern. Those who would say that wilderness protections increased the effects of the fire ignore the high severity mortality that occurred in the dense fiber plantations surrounding the wilderness and the impacts of Forest Service fire fighting techniques that were intended to blacken green forest stands.

The logging controversy

Once the smoke cleared, the real controversy began: where to conduct post-fire salvage logging. Timber interests saw an opportunity to produce wood products and speed conifer establishment through logging. Ecologists touted the wildlife habitat values of dead trees and soil building through natural recovery.

Initially it looked as if the Forest Service would succeed in quickly logging those lands where timber values were to be emphasized (called the timber matrix) while allowing the old-growth reserves and wildlands to recover naturally. Environmentalists were poised to live with up to 90 million board feet of logging on thousands of acres of public lands and it looked like the logging industry would get fast access to valuable timber. Then the compromise unraveled.
Douglas County politicians hired forest engineer John Sessions to produce a report suggesting that the Forest Service should log across the landscape, including those wilderness-quality roadless areas that had been backburned by the Forest Service. The Forest Service adopted the new "log across the landscape" approach and the early promise of moderation and compromise was never realized. Instead controversial logging divided communities and the public was left with a legacy of clearcut botanical areas, logged-over old-growth reserves and degraded roadless forests. The resulting moonscape clearcut of the Babyfoot Lake Trailhead is a scab that never heals for many who love the Kalmiopsis.

Ironically, and sadly, the initial compromise matrix-logging proposal would have produced more timber faster than did the divisive "log across the landscape" approach.

Natural recovery

What can get lost in the Biscuit story is that it has a happy ending of sorts. The fire has provided a unique opportunity to examine and study how the fire-evolved forests of the Klamath-Siskiyous recover. Research by Dan Donato of OSU established that where burned forests were left alone (rather than logged) conifer recovery was robust and fire hazard has decreased. Further studies have confirmed natural conifer recovery is exceeding expectations and that leaves from sprouting hardwoods are building soils while dead snags are contributing nutrients to the next forest. Despite the many heartaches associated with Biscuit, the rebirth of these resilient forests is an inspiring and fitting new chapter that will continue to unfold throughout the coming decades.

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