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Black Butte Fire Ignites Policy Debate

The 7500 acre GW fire near Black Butte Ranch is now 40 percent contained, and residents have been allowed back into the 1200 homes in the resort, after Monday’s evacuation. But now that firefighters are in mop up duty, a lot of questions about policy and decision making have emerged.

Joining us now to talk about all that is our central Oregon correspondent Ethan Lindsey . He was up at Black Butte  covering the fire.

Hi Ethan.

Hi Allison.

So, with residents back home, are the firefighters packing up?

Not completely. More work left to be done. Still 800 firefighters on the scene. And we are still at a heightened evacuation level, where residents are advised to keep their valuables packed and ready to go.

But, I have to say, in talking with firefighters and residents, they are all decompressing. Many feel like we are clear of the real danger.

Let me give you an idea why — This, the G-W fire was named because the forest its burning on, if you look at it on a map from above, it looks like George Washington’s head on the quarter. George Washington, G-W, get it?

And the fire is burning both east and west from George’s head. On the east side, they have dug these huge fire lines between the homes and the fire stopping the blaze. So even if the fire keeps spreading, it will be west, towards the wilderness of Mt Washington, and away from homes.

But now that residents are home and feel safe, they have time to reflect on what happened. And many aren’t happy with how things went. And there’s a huge debate between the environmentalists and the logging supporters over how the fire was fought.

Big surprise. Loggers versus environmentalists. Is this just a new way for them to revive an old debate?

Well, in some ways, of course. But actually, this fire provides an interesting way to look at what many consider to be the next frontier of the great debate over our wilderness.

Its generally accepted, by all sides, that the unprecedented wildfires we have seen in recent years is because the forests are too dense.

The simple reason is because we’ve stopped cutting down as many trees. The more complex reason is because more and more Americans are living near forests.

So, to save lives and property, we have been forced to stop wildfires earlier. That may stop fires from getting scary close to homes, it also is bad forest management policy. Because the next time a fire starts, there’s just too many trees – too much fuel for the fire – and they can rage almost instantly.

So, with that, firefighters – especially with the Forest Service or remote areas – have decided to stop immediately putting out wildfires.  

Is that what happened here – at Black Butte?

In fact, that question came up at yesterday’s community meeting in Sisters – did the firefighters wait to put out this fire, because it was near the federally-protected Mt Washington wilderness area?

At one point, this woman who works at Black Butte, Jan Prey, stood up and questioned why firefighters took so long.

Jan Prey: “I am just curious as to why the didn’t put the fire out when it was small – there was several hours when they could have put it out.”

When she raised this issue with the firefighters, the majority of the residents were shaking their heads. Fire marshals said that wasn’t the cae. They tried to get in as early as possible, but winds prevented them from sending fire jumpers in by parachute.

At the meeting, Bill Benson spoke up to defend the firefighters.

Bill Benson: “I would be more inclined to blame the environmentalists who prevented the prescribed burning and the fuels treatment over many years, more than I would blame current fire policies.”

Prescribed burning is, of course, the method whereby firefighters start fires in an area, in order to intentionally thin the forest and reduce fire risk.

So is that where the debate is headed? Over whether to intentionally burn or not?

Actually, that question has been resolved, to some degree. Environmentalists, like the group Oregon Wild, say they are entirely O-K with prescribed burns.

But the question is where – and what to do after.

Loggers are all in support of prescribed burns, as well – but they don’t want to limit them to just near populated areas. They say they are helpful in all sorts of forests – even remote ones.

And then afterward, loggers go in and ‘salvage log.’ They cut down the burnt trees, as well as some healthy ones.

And that’s the other disagreement. Environmentalists say that is not healthy for the forests. That the name ‘salvage logging’ is a misnomer. Really is clear cutting and logging in areas near a wildfire.

Black Butte actually thinned and burned some of the forests around the resort over the past few years.

And Black Butte firefighters say that – plus a timely rainstorm – may have been the difference between this week’s happy ending and a scarier situation.

So, even with this week’s example, the debate rages on.

Thanks Ethan.

You’re welcome Allison.

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