ASHLAND — Kristi Mastrofini stared down the roaring gun barrel of the deadly Klamathon fire that was ready to burst through Oregon’s southern door.
In just its second day, the 9,600-acre fire had killed one man in Northern California and swept through 40 structures. Now, shifting winds hurtled flames northward toward the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and the communities around it.
If left unchecked, the fire could swallow rural homes, destroy key power lines, and surge through the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area, whose topography suggested the possibility of a Sherman-like march all the way to Highway 66.
Oregon Department of Forestry fire bosses saw decommissioned roadbeds through the southern end of the wilderness as the first and best line of defense. They asked to open them, but much wider and more quickly than hand crews could possibly do.
“It really was important not to lose this opportunity, so the fire didn’t get established in Oregon,” said Mastrofini, the Bureau of Land Management’s Ashland Resources Area field manager.
So Mastrofini and BLM District Manager Elizabeth Burghard on July 6 did what was once virtually unthinkable. They approved bulldozers to blade nearly 20 miles of former roadbed in the wilderness, lands so protected from mechanization that hikers can’t even push a stroller on its trails.
Flames hit the fresh lines in several locations, but they held until winds shifted again to push Klamathon flames back to California. Calamity avoided.
“They met the objective we were looking to meet at a very ever-changing situation,” Mastrofini said.
Once a legal tool kept deep in the toolbox, heavy equipment such as bulldozers are now on the tool bench ready for use to reduce the ecological, social and economic damage created when wildfires rage in wilderness areas.
With ever-larger fires damaging public resources, communities under siege from choking air, and tourism businesses up in smoke the past two years, land managers are looking to hit wildfires earlier and harder — even if it means dozers in wilderness areas.
“There is a lot of fatigue in southwest Oregon in the past two years,” said Traci Weaver, public affairs officer for fire communications for the Forest Service and BLM’s state office. “I think everyone’s doing their best trying to keep fires to a smaller footprint.”
The Wilderness Act bans mechanized equipment such as chainsaws and bicycles from designated wilderness areas, but provisions allow for heavy equipment such as vehicles, dozers and excavators when fighting wildfires.
The equipment must be approved on Forest Service land by the regional foresters, but BLM delegates that authority down to the local level, including Mastrofini, BLM’s Ashland area resource manager.
Wilderness dozer work within 50 air miles of Medford has been approved as often this summer as it has the previous 12 years on all Forest Service lands in Oregon and Washington, records show.
The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest twice asked for and received approval last month to use bulldozers in wilderness areas while fighting the Klondike fire in western Josephine and eastern Curry counties.
However, encroaching flames kept bulldozers from cutting lines in the Kalmiopsis and China Hat wilderness areas, so the approvals were never used, but dozers were ready to go had conditions not worsened and reduced the likely effectiveness of dozer lines there, officials said.
Before those approvals, the Forest Service approved bulldozer entry to just three wildernesses during wildfires in Oregon and Washington — the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area during 2014’s Chiwaukum fire; the Mount Washington Wilderness Area during the Shadow fire in 2011; and the Columbia Complex fire in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness Area in 2006.
In the Shadow fire and the Columbia Complex, both of which were in Oregon, bulldozers were not deployed in the wilderness areas, Weaver said. No information was available on whether bulldozers were actually used in the Chiwaukum fire, she said.
BLM also used bulldozers on a short line during 2014’s Oregon Gulch fire in the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area, which was founded in 2009 and is a rare “urban wilderness” with development nearby and former roads and two Pacific Power transmission lines criss-crossing it.
Craig Trulock, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest deputy supervisor, said the forest would “probably not” have asked for dozers 10 years ago on a fire like the Klamathon. But wildfires fed by more fuels on the ground and fire fatigue among the public beaten down by unhealthy air and crashed tourism economies ratcheted up the need to keep fires from growing unchecked in wilderness areas, he said.
“I think all of those contribute to our sensitivity to the public,” Trulock said.
“If we’re not going to keep up with being as aggressive as we can both in fire season and off-season, we’re going to see bigger and bigger fires,” he said.
Firefighters are more adept now at using dozer lines more effectively as anchors for burning out fuels toward a fire, robbing it of potential strength and halting flames at ridge lines or other key geographically defensible areas, Trulock said.
“We’re getting better at it,” Trulock said. “Being able to put a dozer line in wilderness makes more sense than when we weren’t so good at doing that.
“There are only so many places where you can be successful,” Trulock said.
So far, there has been little Monday-morning quarterbacking of the BLM’s dozer decision.
“I’m not going to second-guess the firefighting in the wilderness,” said Joseph Vaile, executive director of the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. “It’s a balancing act to make sure firefighters are kept safe, communities are kept safe and that wilderness values remain.”
Vaile said he would like to see an intense study of the “burn reports” that review a fire’s activities and the reactions by firefighters to them “to see what we can learn from them.”
Dave Willis, executive director of the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council, said he knows the BLM’s decision was legal, but “I can’t say that I know” whether it was necessary.
Willis said he has seen some of the dozer work, as well as photographs and videos. “The fire-suppression impacts have been more environmentally harmful than the impacts of the fire itself,” he said.
Willis stressed that the BLM needs to follow its rehabilitation directives spelled out in the wilderness area’s management plan to curb erosion and other potential ecological hazards caused by the bulldozers.
“I think it’s important that the rehabilitation be done in a timely and quality fashion, certainly before the fall rains,” Willis said.
Rehabilitation already has begun, with BLM crews breaking up the bladed former roadbed on a secondary dozer line that was not used, Mastrofini said. Also, some drainage areas and seasonal streams filled in during bulldozing were restored to their natural contour.
Already ceanothus sprouts are popping out of the char.
“It’s really cool to see things come back real fast,” said Charles Schelz, the monument’s ecologist. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Perhaps as early as next week, the main rehabilitation will begin, with excavators moving into the center of the bulldozed areas and working their way back while breaking up the compacted soils.
“It’ll be an excavation show, which means it will be slow but high quality,” said Tim Montfort, the BLM hydrologist assigned to the rehab project.
Drainage areas will be seeded, and slash will be spread on the former dozer lines as mulch for natural regeneration of grasses and brush, Montfort said. When the last pickup and piece of heavy equipment used in the rehab backs out of the wilderness area, the chain gate will be locked once more and bulldozers will be just as forbidden again as strollers on Soda Mountain.
“When it’s complete, that’s it,” Schelz said. “No more riding on the road.”