Worth the risk?

A deadly helicopter crash in Northern California has some people asking if federal agencies should risk firefighters' lives battling blazes in remote, sparsely populated areas.

Ashland High School graduate David Steele, 19, and Southern Oregon University students Edrik Gomez, 19, and Scott Charlson, 25, were killed along with six others in the Aug. 5 crash in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

They were working on the Iron Alps Complex of fires, located in rugged mountains midway between Redding, Calif., to the east and Eureka, Calif., on the coast. Highway 299 winds through the steep terrain as it follows the course of the Trinity River past small communities such as Big Bar and Burnt Ranch.

Just over 1,000 people are assigned to the Iron Alps Complex, which has burned more than 95,000 acres and has cost at least $55.9 million to suppress so far.

In July, another firefighter was killed by a falling tree in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

A retired federal agency employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said many people are reluctant to talk publicly right now about whether firefighters should be aggressively battling the Iron Alps Complex fires.

"Some people are saying because there were fatalities, this is not the time to discuss policy. But this is also a time when people are paying attention," said the former employee, who has nearly two decades of firefighting experience and has ridden in helicopters while fighting wildfires.

He said when a helicopter loses power over flat land, its blades will rotate automatically from the force of the air as it falls to the ground. People inside will experience a hard, but often survivable, landing. But over steep terrain with trees, a helicopter will drop like a stone if its rotor blades hit a tree.

Witnesses of the Aug. 5 helicopter crash said it took off more slowly than normal, hit a tree about 40 to 50 feet above the ground, crashed and caught on fire.

"Your margin of safety is really gone when you're flying crews over steep terrain," the former employee said.

A natural role

The former employee said wildfires often improve the health and fire resilience of forests by burning off surface fuels. Large trees often survive the burns. Public acceptance of the controlled use of fire is increasing.

Although there are relatively few people living in areas threatened by the Iron Alps Complex, he said the remote wildfires still have a serious impact. Smoke has blanketed many communities in northern California for weeks.

"When you have a lot of smoke, you're putting a lot of smoke in people's lungs. There's a big trade-off there. Maybe this is the year you should let it burn out. But that smoke is pretty awful," he said.

He said he doesn't want to second-guess the choices of fire managers, who must make nuanced decisions and often must choose between the lesser of two evils.

Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist with the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy in Ashland, said sometimes it's better to let wildfire play its natural role of cleansing the forest.

"From a pure ecological standpoint, every time we put out a fire in the backcountry, there are ecological costs," he said.

While smoke is a concern, DellaSala said the more humans put out wildfires, log fire-resilient old growth forests and replace them with fire-prone tree plantations, the more they are increasing the risk of intense wildfires.

"Nobody likes smoke. But when you look at the history of fire, we are burning about one-tenth of what Mother Nature used to burn. historical accounts, there used to be months at a time when people couldn't see the peaks of mountain ranges," he said.

DellaSala said prescribed burning and understory thinning could help control smoke. He would also like to see people who live in the woods clear brush and trees from around their homes to protect buildings from wildfires.

Looking at climate change models, DellaSala said the West may experience longer La Ni&

241;a and El Ni&

241;o periods, which could translate into several years of light wildfire seasons in a row followed by a series of heavy wildfire years.

Smoke impacts health

Jim Whittington, public affairs officer for the Medford District Bureau of Land Management, said there is no simple answer to whether federal agencies should be fighting fires in remote, rugged areas.

Lightning strikes sparked wildfires across a broad swathe of California in mid-June. In a normal year, California is more prone to wildfires in the late fall when the Santa Anna winds begin, he said.

Fire managers wanted to control the blazes there in anticipation of wildfires expected to flare up this month and into the late fall in the Rocky Mountains, he said.

"The decision was made to get these out as quickly as possible to make sure we had resources for other parts of the country," Whittington said.

He said federal agencies don't have a "let it burn" policy, but they do sometimes allow wildfires to burn and perform their natural role. Fire managers will draw an imaginary line around a wildfire, and if it threatens the edges, they will take action ranging from full suppression to cooling down the fire with bucket drops.

Because of their relative isolation, the fires in the Iron Alps Complex were probably allowed to burn in the beginning while firefighters and other resources were concentrated on blazes in more populated areas, Whittington said.

Fighting the Iron Alps Complex now is important because of the smoke being generated, he said.

"The smoke impacts are just horrendous," he said.

While the Siskiyou Mountains have blocked much of the smoke from reaching Ashland and Medford, towns and cities in northern California such as Yreka and Redding have had week after week of heavy smoke. On a trip into California this summer, Whittington said he was unable to see Mount Shasta from Interstate 5. The smoke was affecting communities even as far south as Sacramento.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency because of smoke and unhealthy air quality in Humboldt County on Aug. 6. Public officials warned even healthy people to stay indoors.

Fine particles from smoke can get into the lungs and cause illnesses such as bronchitis. The particles can also aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases, and have been linked to premature deaths in people with those conditions, according to the airnow.gov Web site, which is run by a coalition of state, federal and tribal agencies.

On Friday, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality advised people in Jackson County to limit their time outside and warned people with asthma and other conditions to stay inside. Changing weather conditions helped clear smoke on Saturday and into this week.

Meanwhile, families, firefighters and federal agency employees are continuing to mourn the losses of their relatives and colleagues.

"It's incredibly unfortunate. It's terrible for the families," Whittington said. "We are a community. Any time you have someone willing to walk into a fire, there is a bond with others who are willing to do the same thing."

Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com. To post a comment, visit .

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