A volunteer group of wildland firefighters in south-central Oregon is frustrated with the U.S. Forest Service after members were turned away from suppressing the Watson Creek fire, which would go on to burn nearly 60,000 acres.
The fire started Aug. 15 on the Fremont-Winema National Forest about 13 miles west of Paisley, Ore., spread quickly and prompted multiple evacuation notices for nearby residents in rural Lake County.
Kevin Leehmann, of Summer Lake, serves as chairman of the High Desert Rangeland Fire Protection Association, covering 1.7 million acres from Fort Rock south to Valley Falls. He was among the crew that initially responded to the Watson Creek fire when it was still only 8-10 acres in size, only to be told by the Forest Service to leave.
“We were pretty angry,” Leehmann said. “I was just dumbfounded they would turn us away.”
Rangeland fire protection associations allow local farmers and ranchers across the West to work with state and federal firefighting agencies to battle wildfires in large, remote areas. Oregon’s High Desert association formed in 2017 following the Ana fire, which burned 5,874 acres and two structures west of Ana Reservoir near Summer Lake.
“We needed this association,” Leehmann said. “I think it’s a great model.”
The association now has roughly 75 members scattered over a mix of private timberland and dry, scrubby desert. Leehmann said they have signed agreements with the Oregon Department of Forestry and Bureau of Land Management, but not with the Forest Service.
At about 3 p.m. on Aug. 15, Leehmann said the association first received reports of a fire over dispatch through the Lakeview Interagency Fire Center. They responded first to the Withers Ranch near Paisley, before determining the fire was west of Highway 31 on the national forest, outside of their jurisdictional boundaries.
Leehmann, who works as a trained firefighter and paramedic with the La Pine Rural Fire Protection District, said they got within 1,000 yards of the fire, walking in a D6 bulldozer to start digging a firebreak in thick timber and lots of dead and down fuel.
By that time, the Forest Service had taken command, and that’s when Leehmann said they were ordered to leave.
“We jut flat got shot down,” he said. “I’m not saying we would have stopped the fire, but at least we would have done something.”
Leehmann readily admits they were outside of their jurisdiction, but nonetheless were prepared to go to work. The fire made a seven-mile run overnight, leading to immediate evacuation orders for Lakeview Estates and Level 2 notices as the fire approached Paisley.
Leehmann said the association needs an agreement with the Forest Service to prevent something like this from happening again.
“If we don’t have it by next year, I’m probably going to raise holy hell over it,” he said. “It’s just ridiculous.”
Tamara Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the Fremont-Winema National Forest, said the primary issue was safety. The association arrived on scene without being dispatched, outside of their jurisdiction, and without wearing the appropriate protective gear, she said, such as Nomex shirts, pants and hard hats — an assertion Leehmann denies.
“Our first priority is firefighter and public safety,” Schmidt said. “We didn’t want them to get hurt.”
Now that things have settled down, Schmidt said the Forest Service will work this winter to reach an agreement with the High Desert association, and outfitting the group with the proper equipment.
Schmidt said the Forest Service is accustomed to working across jurisdictions on wildfires. She cited the South Central Oregon Fire Management Partnership, made up of the Forest Service, ODF, BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Crater Lake National Park.
Schmidt said the Forest Service knows members of the community were frustrated following the Watson Creek fire, and appreciates their patience and understanding.
“We value and appreciate the community, and want to make sure we’re all working together, and doing it safely,” she said.
The Watson Creek fire is now 95 percent contained. The cause is still under investigation.