The Dollar Lake Fire: What the government did wrong

The Dollar Lake Fire: What the government did wrong

23 September 2011

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USA — The Dollar Lake fire is just another example of government at its worst. Unfortunately the firefighting attempt was not that different than the previous Gnarl Ridge fire where firefighters were pulled off of the fire line too early. It reignited and burned another 1,000 acres. And not that different than the 2006 Bluegrass Ridge complex where mostly what we saw were green trucks parked along Highway 35 with forest service employees watching the fire through binoculars.

On this fire, as the flames moved rapidly toward our family timberland about a mile and a half away, I became concerned.

The glow from flames at night was a mile wide. The fire was gobbling up valuable public forests that provide our irrigation water, important fish and wildlife habitat, natural beauty and favorite recreation spots. Homes and domestic water sources were threatened.

Soon the fire was pouring massive amounts of smoke into the Parkdale valley, settling there every night and staying until noon in almost suffocating concentrations.

I was concerned for the elderly, such as my mom, and ill, such as my wife, for other residents and for our workers who work outside in our orchards every day. I flew over the fire and looked for signs of suppression activity. Winds were light. The fire was calm. I saw no crews working, no bulldozers working and no retardant planes. The helicopters were parked at the airport collecting their standby pay.

I called the governor’s office several times and was told the U.S. Forest Service was a federal agency and was not their jurisdiction. I told them I was a landowner near the fire and that my land actually was state jurisdiction. They said they would have someone call me. I am still waiting.

As the smoke thickened and visibility was less than a half-mile near our farm, I decided to call DEQ to see if they could monitor Parkdale air quality. Citizens could then be advised of the best practices to attempt to protect their health and even if we should be evacuating. After being put on hold at DEQ and transferred several times, I found a person who told me “we do not do that.” I decided to call Oregon OSHA to see if it could do air monitoring.

After talking to about six people and being transferred numerous times and having my call dropped, I also found a person who told me “we can’t do that.” I asked at a Forest Service meeting if they were concerned about the air quality in Parkdale and if they could work with us to do air monitoring. They also said “we don’t do that.”

I continued to make calls for another half a day and finally made progress. In the end the agencies worked together and did collect air quality samples, and they determined that on worst days particulates were elevated in Parkdale to two times “dangerous” level. Carbon monoxide was also elevated to unsafe levels.

But most disappointing was the U.S. Forest Service, which really failed to show up at the fire for two days. It failed to act. The forest service had public meetings and brought a host of officials (actually enough to put out a pretty good fire). At those meetings PR people, information officers, media specialists and supervisors worked with the press to spin the facts to protect themselves.

They used the standard Forest Service excuses that they used on the last two Mount Hood fires: too remote, too rugged, too unsafe, lack of resources.

The fire was not on a roadway. They had to walk in. It was not on flat ground. There were trees and stuff on fire. Their first statements that they were waiting and watching changed.

Was the fire really impossible to attack? Experienced, hardworking firefighters in Parkdale were ready and willing to attack the fire. My mom at age 93 hiked that “rugged and remote” area last summer and photographed wildflowers in the meadows. A Parkdale pilot observed the fire at less than two acres for two days. Quick action could have saved $20 million.

There has to be accountability. This will take more than members of the public can achieve. The USFS is an impenetrable fortress. Freedom of Information Act requests are met with “we don’t have that information.” All meetings are “managed” by the Forest Service to discuss only its agenda. They believe they cannot benefit from ideas from the public. The Forest Service needs to be infiltrated by management people from the private sector, or it may be time for firefighting to be turned over to local jurisdictions.

The U.S. Forest Service needs to be investigated through open public hearings in at least three areas: (1) Was the agency negligent or incompetent at this fire? (2) Was it really the Forest Service’s intent to “let it burn” in the wilderness without suppression efforts? Many suspect that this was the agenda. It is not commonly known that they can use chain saws, pumps, retardant planes and helicopters to fight fire in the wilderness and with approval of the secretary of agriculture they can use bulldozers. And (3) It is common knowledge that firefighters and management personnel make more during a fire for hazard pay and overtime. Does this influence response time or fire management?

Instead of admitting its faults, evaluating procedures in view of the public, the Forest Service spends thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of staff time doing media damage control, spinning its message, producing news releases on rehab and schmoozing the public. Where is accountability? Why would we want them to do rehab when they did not manage the fire and cost us $20 million? Tours have started in the Parkdale area to rebuild the Forest Service’s tarnished image and discuss spending federal dollars on rehabilitation. I, for one, am not getting on that bus.

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