Forest officials and law enforcement leaders host an informational meeting on the Desolation fire Thursday

MAP COURTESY OF CENTRAL OREGON FIRE INFO - The map shows the location of the Desolation fire as of Sunday. The fire grew to about 3,200 acres, but stayed within planned containment lines.

A group of government and emergency officials joined firefighter personnel Thursday night in hosting a public meeting regarding the Desolation Fire on Ochoco National Forest.

The event, which drew an audience of about 50 people, was hosted by members of the Ochoco staff and featured several speakers who sought to explain how and when the fire started as well as the strategy firefighters were employing to extinguish it.

Taking the floor first was Alex Robertson, who is the fire and aviation staff officer for Central Oregon and supervises the fire and fuel program for Deschutes and Ochoco national forests and the Prineville District of the Bureau of Land Management.

He first explained to the audience how busy the fire season has been from the national to the local level and how much that has thinned available firefighting resources.

"Nationally, it is a really, really busy fire season," he said. "We determine resource drawdown by planning modes — we have been in Planning Level 5 nationally, which is the highest planning level, since the middle of July."

Multiple geographic areas are busy with fires, Robertson said, making resources scarce, especially helicopter, other aircraft and hotshot crews.

"All fires are being prioritized at the national level to see who gets the resources that every fire wants," he said, adding that fires that pose the greatest risk to homes, private property and natural resources take top priority.

The same can be said at the regional level, where Oregon and Washington have been at Planning Level 5 since mid-August, and in Central Oregon where Robertson said they have been fighting fires heavily since late June.

This scarcity of resources and an ongoing effort to provide whatever is available to the highest priority fires is what firefighters faced when the Desolation Fire first started. Robertson noted that the Central Oregon area received some lightning on Sept. 6 that primarily hit the Ochoco and the Prineville BLM District. The lightning started several small fires, although a small one that would later become known as the Desolation Fire was not immediately found.

Because of the lingering smoke from large fires throughout Oregon, lookouts and aerial recon efforts failed to detect it, and it wasn't discovered until Saturday, three days later, when a hunter spotted it while roaming around the Mill Creek Wilderness area. At the time, it was between a quarter and a half-acre in size.

"It was burning in the Hash Rock fire start," Robertson said, noting that the Hash Rock burned a large portion of the wilderness in 2000. "After Hash Rock went through, (there were) lots and lots of standing snags. A lot of those have fallen and a lot of them are still standing. Those snags are 17 years old, and what that means is those snags are starting to get soft. They are not stable, they are very dangerous, and they fall over very easily."

Because of this, even though they wanted to put the fire out, Robertson did not want to put crews on the ground to fight it. They instead used a helicopter to drop water on it for a few fuel cycles, but that effort was short-lived because the equipment was pulled to use on a higher-priority fire.

So suppression efforts had to wait as local officials kept an eye on the fire and waited for more resources to come available.

Finally, some aircraft became available on Monday, and the decision was made to dump seven loads of retardant on the blaze. Tuesday, they were able to follow that up with another 20 loads of retardant as well as 20 loads of water scooped by aircraft out of Ochoco Reservoir. Robertson explained that water was used instead of retardant to avoid harming fish in a creek near the fire.

The winds picked up Tuesday night, turning an approximately 25-acre blaze into a 1,500-acre fire. Robertson said this prompted a Type 3 team to take command of the fire, which meant resources and a higher skill set to manage the fire.

Firefighters began conducting burnout operations to the east of the fire, to prevent it from spreading any further in that direction, an effort that Robertson said has thus far been a success. In addition, another 26 loads of retardant were dropped on the blaze.

When Ochoco National Forest Supervisor Stacey Forson spoke later in the meeting, she made a point of stressing that fires can be fought on wilderness land. She noted that chainsaws can be used as well as helicopters, retardant and water drops, landing zones and more. The only equipment she cannot authorize, she said, is a dozer.

"We engage fire in wilderness," she said. "It just depends on the conditions, the tools we have available and certainly the safety of putting people on the ground."

The safety question, particularly the presence of heavy, unstable snags, prompted Crook County Judge Seth Crawford and others in the audience to question whether something can be done to remove the fuels.

"What can we (the county) do to work to get some of this fuel out of there?" Crawford asked Forson.

In reply, Forson said she does not have the authority to authorize fuels treatments on wilderness land, and added that a legislative fix is likely the best solution to the problem. As it turned out, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley's local field representative, Phil Chang, was in the audience, and he briefly addressed the issue.

Chang said there are many acres of burnt trees not only in wilderness areas, but other areas throughout the country. Consequently, trying to treat them all would result in a huge expense.

His answer prompted a member of the audience to ask if that cost would outweigh the cost of fighting fires where such treatments go undone.

"If you could predict exactly where it was going to happen each year before the fire started, you could very cost-effectively hit it," Chang answered.

Although one audience member made a point of praising the Ochoco staff and emergency personnel for hosting the meeting, Forson concluded her address by saying communication to the public could still improve.

"I think we could continue to do a better job of communicating with all of you," she said, "not so much just what we are doing and when, but why we are doing it."

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