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Healthy Forest : An Initiative for Wildfire Prevention and Stronger Communities

The Squires Fire: A Case Study in Fire and Forest Management Obstacles and Effects


The history of the Squires Fire provides a good example of the legal and regulatory obstacles to effective land management efforts to reduce fire hazards and promote forest health. Studies of the fire also demonstrate the nature and effects of wildfires burning on both treated (thinned) and untreated land.

In 1996, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) began planning a project to restore forest health and reduce the hazardous accumulation of fuels on 24,000 acres of BLM land in the Squires Peak area near Medford, Oregon. It took six years of analysis and legal review, 830 pages of documentation, several appeals and two lawsuits before work was allowed to begin work on the Spencer Lomas Project fuels treatment project, a 430-acre portion of the original 24,000-acre project.

When the Squires Fire was ignited by lightning on July 13, 2002, approximately 80 acres of the Spencer Lomas project remained untreated, and subsequently burned. Because firefighters were unable to quickly extinguish the fire, it burned more than 2,800 acres of forest, including more than 800 acres of private land. The fire burned the habitat of threatened spotted owls and the Gentner's Fritillary, an endangered flowering plant, as well as three million board feet of commercial timber. The fire cost $2 million to suppress, and will cost about $1 million to rehabilitate.

The value of fuels reduction projects.

Observations of the fire behavior on both treated and untreated areas starkly illustrate the value of fuels reduction projects: While untreated forest burned intensely, destroying trees and causing lasting damage to the ecosystem, the fire dropped to the ground when it burned into the treated areas, and burned with the low-intensity heat characteristic of normal wildfires, leaving space where firefighters could safely attack the fire.

As the accompanying photos of the Squires Fire show, the difference in fire behavior between thinned and unthinned areas was dramatic. Although tree loss was minimized in treated areas (see photos on page 19), in areas that were left untreated, the fire burned tree canopies and destroyed most trees (see photos on page 20).

Legal and regulatory obstacles to timely implementation of fuels projects.

For six years, the Department of the Interior tried to get regulatory and judicial approval to thin and manage the area to improve habitat and the vitality of trees.

  • In 1996, BLM began planning the 24,000-acre Appleseed Landscape Project, designed to improve forest health, create greater resistance to drought and insects, and to minimize the risk of wildfires while capturing the commercial value of the excess trees. The project emphasized preserving the largest and healthiest trees as part of its efforts to promote overall forest health.

  • On March 20, 1997, BLM began the required National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process. At the same time, BLM inventoried the forest areas and performed the "survey and manage" review for animal and plant species required by the Northwest Forest Plan.

  • After two years of inventory, survey, review, and project design analysis, BLM released an environmental assessment for the Appleseed Project on June 24, 1999. After a two-month comment period, BLM responded by dividing the Appleseed Project into several smaller projects.

  • On August 26, 1999, BLM proposed the first of these projects, the 430-acre Spencer Lomas Project. Despite having assessed this area as part of its analysis of the Appleseed Project, BLM prepared a new environmental assessment for the Spencer Lomas Project, and performed surveys for additional plant and animal species as required by the Northwest Forest Plan. The Spencer Lomas environmental assessment was released for public comment on July 31, 2000.

  • After completing the environmental assessment, BLM advertised the contract in September 2000, beginning a 30-day public comment period. During this period, several protests were filed with BLM. Although a sale auction was held, protests caused BLM to delay the award of the contract for 24 days. Each protest required BLM to perform additional reviews. BLM spent four months preparing materials in response to the protests, before ultimately denying the protests.

  • Protestors appealed BLM's denial to the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) in February 2001, and sought a stay of the project from the IBLA. After considering the stay requests, BLM awarded the sale to Superior Lumber Company in 2001. The contract called for the work to be performed over a three-year period. Superior Lumber began operations on the project shortly after the contract was awarded.

  • In May 2001, IBLA denied requests for a stay of the Spencer Lomas project and dismissed several appeals as well. Other appeals of the project are still pending before IBLA. Despite the fact that appeals were still pending before IBLA, protestors filed suit in federal court on July 12, 2001, seeking a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction against the Spencer Lomas project.

  • In July and August of 2001, federal rulings were issued denying the efforts to stop the project. A few weeks later, the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their lawsuit with prejudice.


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