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

Freres claims USFS ‘let it burn’ on Beachie Creek

Freres Timber claims the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) adopted a “let it burn” approach to battling the Beachie Creek Fire in 2020, allegedly prioritizing forest management over fire suppression.

In a May 17 motion in U.S. District Court in Eugene, Freres requested an opportunity to investigate this claim more fully as it seeks $33 million in a lawsuit against USFS over the fire.

The motion said witnesses including a retired USFS firefighter, a smokejumper and a helicopter contractor can testify about the agency’s “troubling practice” of treating some wildfires like a controlled burn.

Freres said it requires evidence such as internal USFS communications to corroborate these claims and asked the court for permission to initiate such discovery.

“Whether a ‘let it burn in a wilderness’ policy played a role in the Forest Service decision-making cannot be discerned from the [evidence on record],” said the motion.

Freres said USFS objects to this request and sticks by a March 19 motion to dismiss the suit for lack of legal standing. As of press time, USFS had yet to file a response to the May 17 motion.

A spokesperson for USFS told The Canyon Weekly it is the agency’s policy to not comment on pending litigation.

When asked for clarification on the agency’s policy of treating wildfires as they would controlled burns, the spokesperson declined to provide specifics and referenced the agency’s website. According to the website, USFS considers certain wildfires among its tools to create fire-resistant environments and to “allow fire to resume its natural role in the ecosystem.”

As recently as April this policy was applied to the Little Yamsay Mountain Fire, near Bend, according to reporting by Central Oregon Daily News. The fire sparked April 20 and was determined to be a candidate for resource management, and through “carefully regulated phases” was allowed to burn to 6,000 acres, said the news outlet.

Freres filed suit Jan. 3 claiming USFS negligently failed to deploy firefighting resources in a timely manner after the fire was sparked by lightning Aug. 16, 2020, in the Opal Creek Wilderness. For the first two weeks the fire grew only to 10 acres, said the motion. Then on Sept. 7, 2020, a windstorm pushed the fire west into the Santiam Canyon where it joined multiple PacifiCorp-caused fires.

The resulting blaze burned 193,000 acres, destroyed thousands of buildings and killed five people, said Freres’ motion, including the loss of nearly one third of Freres’ timber holdings.

Freres sued PacifiCorp in 2022 for $15.7 million. It settled in April for an undisclosed amount.

USFS has denied wrongdoing. On March 19 it filed a motion to dismiss, arguing it is immune from litigation because it acted within the scope of its legal authority. The motion said USFS exercised appropriate discretion when ground crews were not deployed due to “rugged and steep terrain,” and when aircraft were grounded due to low visibility. As a result the agency argues Freres has no grounds to sue.

Freres’ May 17 motion said these decisions violated USFS’s own determination to authorize a “full suppression” strategy and extinguish the Beachie Creek Fire before it burned out of control. Freres said, for reasons it hopes to establish after gathering further evidence, the agency allegedly ignored its own directive and let the fire burn unattended.

The motion said this assumption is based on testimony from witnesses such as Frank Carroll, a retired USFS firefighter, who reviewed evidence in the case. The motion said Carroll reached the professional opinion that firefighting resources were delayed or diverted “in the misguided hope of using the Beachie Creek Fire as a ‘managed wildfire.’”

Carroll said an early assessment by smokejumpers determined that a ground crew could hike to the fire and battle it directly. This decision was overridden by USFS incident commanders, said the motion, which Carroll said matches previous decisions to let fires burn as a resource management objective.

The motion said former smokejumper and author Murry Taylor also reviewed the evidence and confirmed Carroll’s observations.

Freres further cited David Horrax of Columbia Helicopters, which was contracted to provide air suppression for the fire. Horrax said they “could have put [the fire] out if [the Forest Service] let us when it was 10 acres,” and instead the agency allegedly grounded flight crews for most of the duration of the fire.

USFS’s policy of using wildfires as resource management has previously come under scrutiny including in 2021 after the Tamarack Fire burned 68,637 acres in Northern California and Nevada. California Gov. Gavin Newsom challenged the policy as reckless, according to The LA Times, and USFS suspended the policy for the remainder of that fire season in the interest of public safety.

 

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