(LONG) Biscuit Fire update (9-6-02)
Daniel B. Wheeler
dwheeler at ipns.com
Mon Sep 9 22:21:26 EST 2002
>From The Oregonian, Sept. 6, 2002, p A1 (Sunrise Edition)
THE BISCUIT FIRE
Origin: July 13 by lightning strike
Name: Biscuit was the name given to two fires - Florence and Sour
Biscuit - after they merged.
Acreage deepled burned: Roughly half of 500,000 acres
Firefighters and support personnel at the fire's peak: 6,886 on Aug.
Structures threatened: 274
Structures burned: 13
Number of injuries to date: 63
Costs associated with fighting the fire: $133.1 million
Firefighting equipment used at fire's peak: 43 helicopters, 238 fire
engines, 87 bulldozers
Crews reach end of the road on Biscuit blaze
With the completion of a 405-mile line, officials expect that the
499,968-acre wildfire will be deemed fully contained today
By BRYAN DENSON, The Oregonian
Thousands of firefighters labored nearly eight weeks to scrape out
what amounts to a crude road around Oregon's biggest wildfire in a
They hacked through forest, choked on smoke, humped gear up
thigh-burning hills and sidestepped flaming debris. Sometimes they
happened upon bears. Temperatures sometimes topped 100.
Late Wednesday afternoon, at three spots 12 miles southwest of Gold
Beach, crews joined the final sections of the 405-mile road ^-
"containment line," in firefighters' parlance - deep in the rugged
Siskiyou National Forest, said fire information officer Betty Higgins.
The feat marked completion of a barrier between the 499,968-acre
Biscuit wildfire and thousands of Southwest Oregon homes.
On Thursday, fire officials declared the wildfire 98 percent
contained, meaning the fire was still capable of crossing 2 percent of
the containment line. They expect to declare full containment today,
Fire officials had joked for weeks that they might marke completion
of the massive pulbic works project by scraping out the final foot
with a "golden" pulaski, the firefighting tool that is part hoe, part
ax. But crews were so busy strengthening the line - putting out
smoldering trees, cutting down trees that threatened to cross the
containment line and setting backburns to widen the buffer - that
there was no time to celebrate.
"You mark it down as a milestone," Higgins said. "But there's so much
work to be done."
To put the Biscuit burn zone in perspective, imagine flying from
Portland to Cannon Beach, then south along the Pacific Ocean to
Newport, then inland to Albany and north back to Portland. Now fly to
Tacoma. The trip would be about 10 miles shy of the perimeter around
the Biscuit fire.
Now imagine cutting such a road, in just eight weeks, through some of
America's most rugged forest.
The loop, which ranged in width from a shovel blade to three
bulldozers, was so long that it took fire officials 2 1/2 hours
recently to favigate it in a small plane.
The path, some of it along paved road, has become easier to see from
the air because it forms a ring around vast, harred forest. Much of
the acreage just inside the line was burned by firefighters. THey set
fire to grass, brush and timber inside the perimeter as a buffer
between the advancing wildfire and rural communities threatened by the
The path was no marvel of engineering. It required to architects, no
transportation engeineers, just sweat, muscle and a firefighting force
that, at its peak on Aug. 15, numbered 6,886. Those troops were bakced
that day by 238 fire engines, 43 helicopters, 87 bulldozers and 127
Lightning starts blaze
The Biscuit fire began July 13, when lightning sparked two wildland
blazes. The Sour Biscuit and Flroence fires, which later merged and
were renamed Biscuit, threatened hundreds of homes and other
structures as they roared through the national forest and the
Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area.
In late July and early August the wind-whipped fires threatened to
break free of the forfest and race eastward into the Illinois Valley.
About 17,000 residents were put on evacuation notie.
As many residents drove northwest toward Grants Pass, they saw heavy
equipment parked on the shoulder of U.S. 199, smoke pouring out of the
mountains and an occasional firefighter. What they couldn't see was
the vast battle line forming miles away over rock-strewn ridges.
Firefighters found some of the containment line easy to build. They
were able to use existing roads or cut lines across wide-open meadows.
But they were forced to hack out much of the road by hand, finding the
going exceedingly slow. In one spot, it took a week to build three
miles of containment line.
Crews invaded the forest lugging a virtual hardware store on their
shoulders. Chain saws tu cut brush and fall large trees. Shovels and a
host of grubbing tools to claw away debris. Knee-buckling loads of
water in "bladder bags" to put out hot spots. Sometimes they carried
sausage-line explosives into the forest, assembled them with duct tape
and fired them off to clear the path.
Some firefighters moved like daylight arsonists along the dusty line,
touching off human-made fires with road flares or drip torches loaded
with diesel and gasoline. They Burned up grass, brush and forest to
widen the road they had scratched out, a barrier between the wildfire
and thousands of homes in its path.
Kindreds of helicopters sometimes dropped pinpong balls full of
flammable chemicals into the forest to expand those burnout zones.
Other choppers dropped enormous buckets of water on the fire's most
accressive edges. Air tankers sometimes swept by, dropping clouds of
red fire retardant.
But the fire, fanned by afternoon breezes, sometimes advanced with
The fire turned towering conifers into Roman candles, burning so
erratically that firefighters were forced to retreat for their own
safety time after time.
Some sustained heat exhaustion trudging through the super-heated
forest in heavy boots and Nomex suits. The fire grew so big it created
its own weather system, with strange temperature reversals sometimes
pinning smoke to the ground like fog.
Firefighters and heavy equipment operators, sometimes choking on
smoke, occasionally found themselves downhill as flaming debris such
as pine cones rolled out of the forest at them.
Firefighters turned their attention away from the eastern and
southern side of the blaze toward the northern and western edges that
threatened several communities. Officials quietly feared that a sudden
catastrophic windstorm might carry the wildfire northward past Agness
and the Rogue River or wstward toward the Pacific Ocean.
But as firefighters worked the western flank of the Biscuit
conflagration about three weeks ago, something close to a miracle
happened. THe air calmed, growing cooler and wetter. The fire began
to lie down.
Firefighters worked in shifts to complete mile after mile of the
containment line along the western front. Evacuation orders for Agness
and surrounding settlements were downgraded to pre-evacuation notices
an then, in the final days of August, were lifted for good.
The fire has gusted a few times since, hurling embers that started
spot fires. Crews that were building the final miles of containment
line had to fall back.
In recent days, the wildfire has torched a few trees here and there,
sometimes creeping across patches of forest missed by its earlier
Thursday's announcement that the fire line had been completed marked
a significant turning point in the Biscuit blaze. But officials
refused to declare victory.
"We still got work to do," said Mark Wilkening, a veteran firefighter
who has manned news media lines for the Biscuit blaze for nearly four
weeks. "We're not marking this with any special celebrations, but we
feel good about the job we've done."
Comment by poster: It's interesting that in earlier articles which ran
in The Oregonian, the total area covered by the fire was mentioned at
over 500,000 acres. This article revises that figure to 499,968-acres.
Then again, it's still less than 1% of total area revision, and it
remains the largest wildfire in the west this year.
Posted as a courtesy by
Daniel B. Wheeler
More information about the Ag-forst