News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Freres sues US Forest Service over fire damage

Freres Engineered Wood has filed a civil lawsuit in federal court in Eugene seeking $33 million in damages from the Forest Service.

Freres lost nearly a third of its Santiam Canyon timber holdings in the 2020 wildfires. The loss will affect operations for at least a couple of generations, company officials say.

A forest products company such as Freres works 20, 30 and sometimes 50 years out because that’s how long it takes Douglas firs to grow to the size the firm needs for its core veneer and plywood businesses. You cut the mature trees, but you are always interplanting, making sure there are enough trees in the pipeline of various ages to keep the volume at the proper levels.

In many parts of the 17,000 acres of Freres holdings there are no young trees. And many of the older ones that were salvageable already have been harvested as the company quickly shifted gears and became, at least for the short term, a company that was focused on replanting and salvage logging instead of its primary functions.

How and why did this happen?

Freres blames the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and its firefighting approaches. 

“I’m really appalled by the Forest Service’s lack of response for weeks while the Beachie Creek Fire smoldered,” President Rob Freres told The Canyon Weekly.

“The Forest Service could have turned that fire into a mud hole in three days if they had utilized the helicopters that they had available. The result is that one-third of our timber has been destroyed and in those spots we can’t have another crop for 50 years. The 2020 fires have gravely threatened our future.”

The lawsuit cites the “negligent failure” of USFS to “sufficiently utilize the helicopters that were available to suppress and contain the Beachie Creek Fire. The suit notes the fire grew from 3.5 acres “into a fire storm that ultimately destroyed nearly 200,000 acres, took lives, destroyed nearly 500 homes and dramatically changed the landscape of the Willamette National Forest. This civil action seems to compensate Plaintiffs for their lost timber and related damages that are a direct result of the Forest Service’s negligence.”

The lawsuit, filed by Haglund Kelley LLP of Portland alleges a series of “facts” in the case:

A. The Pacific Northwest has a long history of periodic catastrophic wildfires.

B. USFS has long understood the conditions necessary for extreme wildfires in the Pacific Northwest.

C. USFS helicopters have a very high success rate when used for the initial attack on wildland fires.

D. In the summer of 2020, the Willamette National Forest experienced extreme wildfire conditions.

E. USFS designated the Beachie Creek Fire as a “full suppression” incident.

F. USFS directed that the full suppression strategy would be secured via helicopter water drops.

G. USFS ignored its own directive by failing to fully utilize its helicopters.

H. USFS left its helicopters sitting idle on the ground.

I. Fire weather conditions deteriorated quickly.

J. Despite deteriorating weather conditions, USFS helicopters remained idle.

K. Deteriorating fire weather conditions created a watchout situation.

L. Despite the watchout conditions and fire weather watch, USFS continued to ignore its incident decision.

M. As a result of USFS’S negligent failure to follow its fire attack plan, the Beachie Creek Fire exploded into a conflagration.

N. As a result of USFS’s negligent failure to follow its fire attack plan, plaintiffs suffered catastrophic property losses.

Timelines and next steps in the cases were not clear. Representatives of Haglund Kelley and USFS did not respond to requests for further information. It appears likely the case will be heard in  Eugene.

Rob Freres
Rob Freres

Freres also is a party to a lawsuit against Pacific Power which alleges that the company’s power lines played a major role in the spread of the wildfires. Last June a jury found Pacific Power to be negligent in the case. A trial to determine damages to be paid out by Pacific Power is tentatively scheduled for April.

“I’m really appalled by the Forest Service’s lack of response for weeks while the Beachie Creek Fire smoldered.” 

– Rob Freres
President of Freres Engineered Wood

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