Criticisms of the way the U.S. Forest Service responded to wildfires in the Cascades near Brietenbush this summer highlight an evolving understanding of how to best manage fire in western forests.

From late July and through September, the Whitewater and Little Devil fires torched about 11,500 and 2,200 acres in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, part of the Willamette National Forest in the Cascades.

Largely because the Whitewater fire was believed to threaten human property – including Brietenbush Hot Springs, an unincorporated residential community of cabins called Summer Homes, and corporate timberland – the forest service created firebreaks and burnbacks in Late Successional Reserve Forest, rare old growth forests intended by law to be protected.

With some ‘breaks’ of cut trees as wide as 100’ across, the two practices destroyed centuries-old trees and created ‘predator corridors’ that now give barred owls and other raptors access to nesting sites of the threatened Northern Spotted Owl, a species reserve forests were specifically set aside to protect.

According to the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy of 2001, the safety of firefighters and the public is ranked the highest priority for protection during wildfires. Next after that natural resources (like forests) and cultural resources (like structures and private timberland) are supposed to be equally valued as a second priority, says Dr. Tim Ingalsbee, Ph.D., an environmental sociologist, former firefighter and a founder of FUSEE.org, Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology.

But in spite of the intended parity of natural and cultural resources, Ingalsbee says, “the forest service continually elevates the importance of protecting private property and corporate timberlands above public lands, including rare and irreplaceable ancient forest stands.”

Using a “militaristic mentality” Ingalsbee says, the Forest Service currently wastes billions of dollars and “dozens of young lives” every year by managing wildfire the way it did the Whitewater and Little Devil, and the result is “we trash these old forests, and fragment the forest with firelines.”

First sparked by lightening, Whitewater was the larger fire that prompted forest service action. “From the very first day the Whitewater was found on July 23rd” says Holly Jewkes, Deputy Forest Supervisor for Willamette National Forest, “hand lines were constructed…. Dozer and hand lines were constructed to protect private property.”

Environmentalist Michael Donnelly, president of the Summer Homes Association

While Whitewater was still 5 miles from Breitenbush and Summer Homes, firebrakes 70’ wide were cut through late sucessional reserves along the former Emerald Forest Trail and firebreaks 100’ wide were cut along Brietenbush Lake Road, according to environmentalist Michael Donnelly, president of the Summer Homes Association and plaintiff in the historic lawsuit that resulted in the creation of the Late Successional Reserve and Opal Creek Wilderness.

“They were cutting them all over the place to protect structures,” Donnelly says. “They also devastated the area around Triangulation Peak with firebreaks and backburns, just to possibly protect private timber plantations west of there.”

The destruction caused by the breaks stunned many that loved the wilderness. Leslie Hawes, a Brietenbush employee, hiked the Emerald Forest Loop on August 23 to survey the damage. “We were in utter shock to discover…many, many miles of cut trees and re-cut stumps,” she says, citing especially the loss of 500-year old Yew trees. “We were in shock to see such a severe management technique for a fire that had no more than a 3% chance of burning toward our home.”

Forest environmentalist and photographer Mahogony Aulenbach documented much of the damage. “It was a crime to cut a virgin forest where we have had a trail for the past 30 years,” he says. “The firebreak went right by the historic Northern Spotted owl nexting tree, through a riparian wetlands and through the climax cathedral forest.”

Spotted Owl Nest tree in the Breitenbush Late Successional Reserve

Woody Jackson, who owns a cabin that would have been one of the first consumed by Little Devil fire, is also opposed to the way the fire was handled. Jackson was dismayed to witness a barred owl near a bulldozer line after the cuts were made; widening the spaces between trees in thick ancient forests create ‘corridors’ for predators like barred owls who kill the protected Northern Spotted owl. Northern Spotted owl populations are declining across their range – Washington, Oregon and California – according to research published in The Condor in December 2015.

Critics like Jackson say that not only do firebreaks and burnbacks destroy centuries-old forest, worst of all they are ineffective. Even incredibly wide firebreaks do not stop fire, as seen when embers from the Eagles Creek fire jumped the width of the Columbia River in early September.

“There is no provable science behind a firebreak,” Donnelly says. “I have not found a single firebreak that worked as advertised in an old growth forest, despite what the Forest Service will tell you. And I have found many instances where they backburned, and the backburn ‘escaped’ (their euphemism) and burned huge amounts of acreage that otherwise would not have burned.”

In fact, in the end the ancient trees were destroyed for no reason; Whitewater and Little Devil did not come close t o any firelines, backburns, private structures or timber plantations.

What finally doused the Whitewater and Little Devil fires – was the environment itself.

Whitewater “stalled in the fire-resistant old growth,” Donnelly says. “Nature came along and put it out as She always does.” Little Devil fire similarly “stalled because of a healthy and intact old-growth stand,” according to Jackson. “old growth Forests remain most resilient to fire and now the proof is a mile from my cabin in moist stands of tall trees.”

Hawes has been thinking about the cut stumps littering the torn hillsides. “The work the forest service and its affiliates did, and continue to do to the forest in an attempt to save human property is ill-informed and not sustainable,” she believes. “In fact, I think forests are human property and should be considered the highest priority to protect over any other structures.”

Researchers like Ingalsbee believe that Late Successional Reserve forests will continue to be lost when fires are fought until people change the way they think. “As a society we have bought into the Smokey Bear propaganda,” he says. “It’s the wrong paradigm. ‘Fighting fire’ is the wrong mentality.” Currently, when wildfire ignites, “the Forest Service treats it like an official ‘state of emergency’ and an enemy invasion, and goes to war.” 

Ingalsbee says the forest service currently uses no universal list of priorities – “it all comes down to the individual forest documents or individual fire and land managers” and  “there are almost no legal or regulatory constraints against the agency doing whatever it wants in its self-declared ‘war against wildfire.’”

He urges greater knowledge of forest systems, such as lighting prescribed fires, in the best of conditions, rather than trying to stop one during the worst. “A simple hiking trail could suffice for the former, but even eight-lane freeways or the Columbia River cannot do the latter.”

Most importantly, Ingalsbee says that until the 2001 Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy giving equal value to public lands and private property is followed, “again and again, the [forest service] will privilege and prioritize private interests over public lands,” as happened with Whitewater and Little Devil.

Public lands will continue to be “bulldozed, bombed with retardants, trees felled and forests  backburned, in order to protect private lands.”