Oregon’s Rum Creek Fire Reveals Risks of New Wilderness Proposals

As of this writing, the Rum Creek Fire in southwest Oregon has burned nearly 12,000 acres along the iconic Rogue River northwest of Grants Pass.  Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has declared an emergency as “Level 3 – Go Now” evacuations are in place for homes near the rural communities of Rand and Galice.  The fire is impacting popular put-in points for rafters running the Wild and Scenic section of the Rogue River, in addition to threatening a resort, cabins, and other infrastructure.

According to Inciweb, the Rum Creek Fire is burning through heavy fuels, including dead trees, as temperatures are expected to reach 100 degrees. Communities across southwest Oregon are choking on toxic smoke.  The air quality index in Grants Pass and surrounding communities is expected to exceed 300, which the US Air Quality Index defines as “hazardous” not only for sensitive groups – but everyone.

More than 1,300 firefighters are working the blaze, which tragically killed 25-year old firefighter, Logan Taylor, after he was struck by a tree on August 18.  The fire is 1% contained and is not expected to be fully extinguished until November.

The Rum Creek Fire is burning through the same geographic area identified by legislative proposals introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio and Senator Ron Wyden.  The “Wild Rogue Conservation and Recreation Enhancement Act” (H.R. 7509) and “Oregon Recreation Enhancement (ORE) Act” (S. 1589) seek to expand the existing Wild Rogue Wilderness Area by 60,000 acres and establish a new 98,000-acre recreation area adjacent to the wilderness.  While the latest iterations of the bills direct federal agencies to develop a “wildfire mitigation plan,” this is coupled with new restrictions and procedural requirements that prevent or complicate efforts to implement forest health treatments.

The legislation would create massive new land set-asides in the Wildland Urban Interface directly adjacent to homes near the small communities of Galice and Merlin.  The total acreage represents more than 245 square miles of fire-prone federal land, where proactive forest management efforts to reduce wildfire risks would either be restrictive or entirely prohibited.  These communities already faced the highest risk of catastrophic wildfire in the state of Oregon.

When commenting on federal legislation related to Wilderness, Wild and Scenic, and other “conservation” designations, AFRC has consistently and repeatedly pointed out the serious risks to public health and safety of drawing arbitrary lines on dynamic, fire-prone forested landscapes and restricting management tools that could prevent, limit, or respond to catastrophic wildfires.

When H.R. 7509 received a hearing in the House Committee on Natural Resources earlier this year, AFRC sent a letter to Committee leadership highlighting the risks to these very communities:

Communities in southern Oregon are consistently identified as some of the most at-risk to wildfire. In fact, three areas in southwest Oregon were recently identified among the top 10 “firesheds” by the Pacific Northwest region of the Forest Service “based on wildfires igniting on forested national forest land available for mechanical treatments and exposing buildings in adjacent communities.” Forested communities such as Merlin, Redwood, Grants Pass, New Hope, and Williams are in close proximity to the designations proposed by H.R. 7509 and have been identified by the Forest Service as among the 50 communities in Oregon with the greatest cumulative housing-unit exposure to wildfire, with Merlin and Redwood ranking first and second, respectively.

Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities launched a grassroots campaign in 2019 opposing these legislative efforts, and even sent mailers to local property owners warning them about the proposal and what it would mean for wildfire prevention efforts.  HFHC also had an oped published in the Stateman Journal, Oregon’s capital city newspaper:

One would think our elected officials would work to make forest management easier for federal agencies, not more difficult. Yet Congress has already passed legislation this year to make fuels reduction more difficult- through arbitrary “Wild & Scenic” designations- along sections of the Rogue River and its often-dry tributaries…

 The federal Wilderness Act is clear in prohibiting forest management activities on such congressionally-designated lands. In this age of larger and severe fires, it’s unfathomable our elected officials would place additional “no touch” zones near communities at greatest risk of catastrophic wildfire.

The Rum Creek Fire provides just one example of misplaced priorities, and the risks of pushing new land set-aside proposals as America’s wildfire and smoke crisis continues.  Unfortunately, this dangerous trend is playing out across the western United States.  The Six Rivers Lightning Complex has burned more than 36,000 acres of the Six Rivers National Forest, including areas proposed for additional legislative “protection” and management restrictions envisioned by Rep. Jared Huffman’s Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forest Act. (H.R. 878).  The proposal impacts more than one million acres of fire-prone forests in California.

The River Democracy Act (S.192) introduced by Senators Wyden and Merkley would impose management restrictions on approximately 3 million acres, many of which are at extreme risk of severe wildfires.  And the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (S.1276) – legislation introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and promoted by celebrity Carole King – would legally prohibit active forest management on more than 23 million acres of fire-prone federal forests in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming.  That’s more than 37,000 square miles of new wilderness, and no management.  Many of these areas have burned, are burning, or are at eminent risk of catastrophic wildfire without intervention.

AFRC believes proactive, science-based forest management is essential to addressing America’s wildfire and smoke crisis that is tragically destroying our communities, forests and watersheds, air and water quality, wildlife habitat and other important values.  Rather than seeking to pass new land set-aside bills, AFRC strongly encourages the Congress to work with the Forest Service and BLM to quickly implement treatments to reduce the risks to these communities, which will also support local recreation and tourism businesses.