On July 12, 2017, the Chetco Bar fire was spotted by a commercial pilot from the air in a steep, remote area in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness roughly six miles west of Pearsoll Peak and 20 miles northeast of Brookings. The fire would eventually burn 191,125 acres and force 5,000 people to evacuate their homes. Like the 2002 Biscuit Fire, which burned 500,000 acres, the Chetco Bar fire was ignited by lightning strikes. Thanks in part to fierce winds, it grew into a megafire that lasted for months, bearing down on the city of Brookings and costing taxpayers millions of dollars to fight.
The megafire was not the first and won’t be the last to impact the communities of the South Coast. As people come together to recover from the damage, they are also learning how to be better prepared in the future.
Businesses ranging from South Coast Lumber to Jerry’s Rogue Jets to South Coast Tours lost revenue due to the long fire season. “Throughout the summer, registration for trips in Brookings were down 50 percent due to the wildfires. The air quality was poor and people chose to go other places,” says Dave Lacey, owner of South Coast Tours and destination coordinator for Oregon Coast Visitors Association (OCVA). He was forced to cancel trips during his busiest season and refund customers about $7,000. “Up to that point, we’d been having a pretty successful season. It taught me that importance of having an emergency fund in the bank to help keep your business afloat when unexpected things happen,” he adds. Many tourism-focused businesses also have business interruption insurance. He recommends knowing what it covers and what it doesn’t, and make sure to keep records of historical data so that you have the information needed to justify a claim.
To assist communities impacted by the Chetco Bar Fire, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown created the Chetco Bar Fire Recovery Council. Chaired by Rep. David Brock Smith and staffed by Alex Campbell, the Governor’s Regional Solutions Coordinator, the council included elected officials from Curry and Josephine counties and representatives of Oregon Regional Solutions, Indian tribes, Business Oregon, the Department of Environmental Quality and the South Coast Development Council.
The group identified and prioritized projects related to economic recovery, public safety infrastructure impacts, and tourism and natural resource recovery. The council’s recommendations included funding requests for: low-interest small business loans, an economic impact analysis and recovery plan; dangerous tree removal, culvert replacement and riparian restoration in burned areas; increased tourism marketing spending on the South Coast during the winter months; and trail repair, among other things.
A Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team assessed post-fire impacts and compiled a report for the Rogue River – Siskiyou National Forest. BAER funds will pay for immediate safety issues, such as removing dangerous trees and other safety hazards, but will not address the efforts needed to re-open recreational trails to the public, says Gabe Howe, executive director of Siskiyou Mountain Club. “We’ve spent the last eight years catching up on trail repairs from the Biscuit Fire,” he says. “The Chetco Bar Fire burned partially in the footprint of the Biscuit Fire, impacting over 80 miles of trail.”
Chetco Bar Fire Recovery Council requested $148,000 to fund a trail crew to work throughout the 2018 season to maintain public access to trails, reduce erosion and sedimentation in salmon bearing streams and fortify trails against future damage. The work would be led by Siskiyou Mountain Club and Curry Citizens for Public Lands Access. So far, no funding has been allocated for the trail work, according to Alex Campbell with Oregon Solutions. However, David Brock Smith has introduced legislation in the short session to help fund trail repairs. Siskiyou Mountain Club has set up a 2017 Fire Recovery Fund, and is actively seeking donations.
“What I heard over and over during my interviews with business owners and elected officials in Curry Council is that while the 2017 fire season hurt, they have greater concern about next fire season, and the next, and into the future,” Campbell says. The Recovery Council’s memo, which Campbell authored and sent to the Governor’s office in November, called the State of Oregon (and federal and local partners) to “take all appropriate steps to reduce and mitigate future fire danger” — a message that can’t be stressed enough.
Photo courtesy of South Coast Tours