Linn County Commissioners Roger Nyquist, John Lindsey and Will Tucker want to know why U.S. Forest Service officials did not make an intense effort to control the Beachie Creek Fire when meteorologists first started forecasting extreme east winds and the fire was still a manageable size.
Tuesday morning the commissioners directed Linn County Administrator Darrin Lane to prepare public records requests for the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Department of Forestry and state of Oregon to review information about how the fire was managed and what information was used in deciding not to attack it before high winds hit the mid-valley.
The Beachie Creek Fire started Aug. 16 in the Opal Creek Wilderness Area. It was originally believed to be caused by lightning, but officials have now backed away from that theory.
The fire had grown to about 400 acres by Labor Day weekend and then exploded when east winds of 50 miles per hour or more hit the mid-valley on Labor Day afternoon.
The fire migrated south and caused severe damage to homes and businesses in the Santiam Canyon communities of Lyons, Mill City, Gates and Mehama. It is now at 190,000 acres.
Fires were also fueled by power lines that were downed by falling limbs.
The Lionshead Fire that began near Warm Springs in Central Oregon also spread quickly and leveled the Marion County community of Detroit, where it joined the Beachie Creek Fire. That blaze is now at 168,000 acres.
“They knew the winds were coming for days,” Lindsey said. “Where were the helicopters?”
Nyquist said it is hard to understand why the government would allow a forest fire to burn in Oregon in August, one of the driest months of the year.
“I believe we owe it to our constituents to provide them with as much factual data as possible,” Nyquist said. “We need to understand how the management decision was made that put the public in this situation in the first place.”
Nyquist said it is sad that it has taken a loss of life to bring the issue of forest management to the forefront.
“I believe this shows how inappropriate the forest management practices of the last 20 years have been,” Nyquist said.
Tucker said had a fire been holding in the Menagerie Wilderness Area east of Sweet Home, that community could have been facing the same devastation as Santiam Canyon residents.
“The risk is still there,” Tucker said. “Fortunately, we have not lost any homes in Linn County from the Holiday Farm Fire in Lane County.”
At least one Linn County logging company has lost an extensive amount of equipment in the Holiday Farm Fire.
That fire is at 166,000 acres.
The commissioners also pledged to cut as much red tape as possible to assist families and business owners as they rebuild their lives in the Santiam Canyon communities.
That includes working with them with environmental and building permits.
Nyquist said he is going to ask Gov. Kate Brown to sign an executive order waiving state land use laws in the canyon area.
“I would propose that we work with the Marion County Board of Commissioners and develop a management process for that area,” Nyquist said.
Nyquist said Linn County’s ability to turn the Fair & Expo Center in Albany into an evacuation shelter for more than 750 people and 1,000 animals was an amazing feat.
“But once the adrenaline of getting the shelter set up settled in, I began to focus on how devastating this is for so many people,” Nyquist said. “The future is daunting for many people. Oregon is not an easy place to build homes, due in part to state land use laws. People want to rebuild. We must help them realize ways they can get there from here.”
The commissioners said they are working with Parks Director Brian Carroll to open county parks as transitional housing for some families.
John Neal Memorial Park at Lyons was not destroyed in the fire. Parks employees have been cleaning the park, restrooms and showers in anticipation of using it as a shelter site. There are about 40 camping slips.