AS FIREFIGHTERS DUG FIRE LINES THIS SUMMER, INVESTIGATORS UNEARTHED CLUES

News Release from Oregon Dept. of Forestry – Posted on FlashAlert: October 20th, 2015 3:51 PM

This summer as thousands of firefighters dug lines to contain blazes across the Pacific Northwest, wildfire investigators did their own digging behind the scenes – searching for clues to how the fires started. While arson is always on the table at the outset of an investigation, human-caused wildfires most often turn out to be the result of carelessness or negligence.

Fire investigators working on the Stouts Creek Fire in SW Oregon this summer determined that the fire was human caused and appeared to be related to an individual mowing grass. Officials said the responsible party allegedly violated a closure on activities in the forest by mowing during prohibited hours. The individual may be liable for fire suppression costs and damages resulting from the fire.

The Northwest Regional office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has numerous investigations underway into wildfires that burned on tribal lands in 2015. The North Star and Carpenter Road fires in Washington, along with the County Line 2 Fire in Oregon, are receiving close scrutiny by BIA investigators. The three incidents consumed a total of nearly 350,000 acres.

Like firefighters, wildland fire investigators routinely partner with their peers in other agencies to solve cases. Interagency cooperation has been crucial to the investigations, said the BIA’s Brian Tonihka:

“We’ve seen a lot of support from interagency partners,” he said. “I can speak specifically to Albert Kassel [Washington Dept. of Natural Resources] and his investigation into the 200 Line Fire near Neah Bay in NW Washington that burned on Makah tribal land.”

While Oregon experienced an intense fire season this summer, Washington’s was arguably even more severe. Kassel said his agency’s investigators have been searching for leads on several fires that occurred on state-protected lands.

2015’s onslaught of fire didn’t spare federal forestlands in the drought-stricken Pacific Northwest, either. On all forest jurisdictions across the two states, more than 3,400 fires burned nearly 1.8 million acres. Much of the forest and rangeland consumed by wildfire this year lay within the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Investigators with the two agencies have dozens of open investigations to determine the causes.

Determining the cause of a wildfire can produce tangible results. In the case of arson, investigators may seek criminal charges. A fire caused by negligence or carelessness can lead to legal claims for restitution. And in the case of this summer’s Stouts Creek Fire, the public announcement of the cause enhanced fire prevention efforts.

“The landowner community was really pleased that the cause of Stouts Creek was released in timely fashion,” said Kristin Babbs, president of the Keep Oregon Green Association. This enabled us to get out appropriate prevention messages when the fire was still on people’s minds.”