EUGENE, Ore. — The Linn County commissioners want to know why a small blaze in the Opal Creek Wilderness Area was allowed to evolve into the devastating 197,000-acre Beachie Creek Fire that destroyed much of the North Santiam Canyon — and they’re going to court to find out.
A Freedom of Information Act request for communications surrounding the fire has not been answered, and Linn County has now filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Eugene to compel the U.S. Forest Service to turn over emails and other information about the fire’s management.
The lawsuit was filed by the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine of Portland.
“We are determined to get to the bottom of how a small fire that had been smoldering for a few weeks devastated hundreds if not thousands of Linn County residents,” Commissioner Roger Nyquist said.
On Sept. 28, Linn County filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Pacific Northwest Regional Office of the U.S. Forest Service.
Public organizations have 20 days to respond to such requests.
On Sept. 29, a Forest Service representative notified Linn County that the request had been received but noted that “your request is not perfected at this time and we will be reaching out to you to discuss clarification once it has been to thoroughly (sic) review.”
Attorney John DiLorenzo contends that, as of the lawsuit’s filing date, no “outreach” has been made to Linn County.
“We are most interested in documents that will provide an explanation of why a super soaker helicopter, which could put out the fire in its early stages, was called off the job,” DiLorenzo said.
The suit asks the court to direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture to “immediately and fully process Linn County’s request and disclose all non-exempt documents immediately to the Plaintiff.”
According to the suit, the Beachie Creek Fire destroyed 197,000 acres and many homes and businesses.
The fire started about Aug. 6 in a remote part of the Opal Creek Wilderness. Lightning is the presumed cause.
The Forest Service attempted to extinguish the fire, which was about 10 to 20 acres in size at that point, but had trouble doing so because it was burning on a “steep, densely forested mountain.”
The Forest Service deployed a Chinook CH-47 “super soaker” helicopter between Aug. 18 and 20, and then “inexplicably, scaled back its efforts on August 21, leaving the fire to burn,” according to the lawsuit.
The fire remained relatively small, growing to about 200 acres by Sept. 1 and then 500 acres.
When winds exceeding 60 mph hit the area on Labor Day, the fire “exploded, torching ancient rainforests in the Opal Creek area and roaring down the North Santiam Canyon,” the suit states.
The lawsuit notes that the fire “destroyed the communities of Mill City and Gates, decimated thousands of structures and claimed at least five lives.”
Among the items the county has requested are:
–Information on prescriptive fires or controlled burns for the Opal Creek area; fire planning for Opal Creek; action plans relating to fire events; any policies or directives relating to natural fires, management-ignited fires or wildfires.
–Contracts and other documents relating to arrangements with outside contractors for firefighting equipment and training in the Pacific Northwest.
–Information about ground fire detection activities for the Opal Creek and Beachie Creek Fire.
–Records of aerial detection flights and primary lookouts for the Opal Creek area from Aug. 1, 2020.
–Records showing budgets and funding for Beachie Creek Fire suppression efforts.
–Records for the suppression response and the control strategy for the Beachie Creek Fire.
The county is also asking to be reimbursed for legal fees associated with the filing of the motion.
Steven Baker, regional media officer for the U.S. Forest Service, said agency officials do not comment on litigation issues.