Ranchers rap So. Fork fire response

Tinder-dry brush torches as the South Fork Complex fire spread this summer in Oregon's Malheur National Forest. Some Grant County ranchers are criticizing the government's response to the fire.

DAYVILLE – The 66,000-acre South Fork Complex wildfire was recently fully contained, but some ranchers are questioning the firefighting response to the blaze.

Lighting ignited the South Fork Complex Fire south of Dayville in early August and fire crews managed to fully line it by mid-September.

However, local ranchers contend the fire could have been contained sooner and at a smaller size if crews had been allowed to bring heavy equipment onto federal land being studied for wilderness and roadless designations.

Chet Hettinga, a rancher who grazes cattle in the area, said fire crews were not permitted to use dozers to clear away fuel and rubber-tired skidders equipped with water tanks in some areas.

“That was the wrong decision to make,” Hettinga said. “That fire could have been held to a minimum.”

Coordination of equipment among fires also seemed poorly managed, he said.

In one case, helicopters were left idle at a higher-priority fire in the area when crews at a lower-priority fire could have used them, he said.

The South Fork Complex Fire burned up an allotment that Hettinga relies on for spring pasture, and federal authorities have said cattle may be excluded from the area for several years to allow grasses to recover, he said.

“That’s a tough deal because I really don’t have that much spring grazing,” Hettinga said.

Loren Stout, a range rider and former rancher, said he’s frustrated that the South Fork Complex wasn’t treated as a high-priority fire despite the presence of critical habitat for threatened steelhead in the area.

Steelhead habitat has been used to justify strict grazing restrictions on Stout and other ranchers who rely on public lands, but protecting it didn’t seem important when it was threatened by fire, he said.

“It’s a meaningless designation, this critical habitat, unless they’re after someone’s job,” Stout said.

Stout is also worried that fences meant to keep cattle away from streams won’t be a high priority for rebuilding after the fire.

Ken Sandusky, spokesman for the Malheur National Forest, said a team of rehabilitation experts are evaluating the damage and will make recommendations as to funding of repairs.

As for the prioritization of firefighting efforts, Sandusky said such decisions were made at the regional level.

“It was tough to compete for the needed resources at the time,” he said.

During the time of the South Fork Complex fire, about 20 other major fires were competing for the resources of fire-fighting teams in the region, said Carol Connolly, fire information officer for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

“We hit some records this year with our fires,” she said.

Fire-fighting agencies don’t consider Eastern Oregon unimportant and understand that people’s livelihoods are stake when blazes spread, Connolly said.

Prioritization of fires is decided daily by a group of officials and experts from multiple state and federal agencies, she said. “We have a decision-making matrix.”

On average, the South Fork Complex was the sixth or seventh priority fire in the Northwest during its spread in August, according to NICC data. It became the third priority fire on Aug. 21 – the highest level it attained since ignition – at which point the blaze had grown to more than 65,000 acres.

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