The Silver Fire: Recovery, Restoration and Roundup

The Silver Fire: Recovery, Restoration and Roundup

Rich Stem, an old Forest Service friend, now retired and living in Montana, has gently chided us for not remembering the history of the agency’s all-hands-on-deck effort to quickly complete a salvage plan following the August 1987 Silver Fire on southern Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest.

Rich sent me an email after we posted a letter [See Chetco Bar Fire: Old Scars, New Wounds] from an angry Brookings, Oregon resident who wrote to the Forest Service concerning their Chetco Bar salvage proposal. In his letter, Guy McMahon accused the agency of having an “abysmal” 0-3 record in salvage planning on the last three fires to burn on the Siskiyou.

Rich took issue with McMahon’s  “0-3” comment, and rightly so. He directed the Silver Fire Recovery Team’s record-breaking 5.5-month completion of the NEPA documentation required before the contemplated salvage operation could begin.

In the aftermath of the 110,000-acre lightning-caused fire, some 160 million board feet of fire-killed timber were salvaged from 9,500 scorched acres, 5,700 of the hardest hit acres were replanted, key riparian zones along steelhead spawning streams were repaired and entire road networks were rebuilt. Many, Rich included, publicly praised his team’s remarkable work. We did, too.

The salvage operation was not without controversy. The smoke had not yet cleared when environmentalists announced that “not one black stick would be harvested because salvaging burnt timber was like mugging a burn victim.”

The challenge so outraged southern Oregonians that they rallied in Grants Pass on August 27, 1989 for an unprecedented event called “The Silver Fire Roundup.”

Some 10,000 filled the grandstand at the Josephine County Fairgrounds to cheer the arrival of more than 1,600 logging trucks from five states. At one point, the line of southbound trucks waiting to exit Interstate 5 at Grants Pass was 26-miles long. The National Trucking Association later called the Roundup the largest peacetime convoy in U.S. history.

I should have remembered all this because the Roundup was my idea. News crews from all three television networks and a half-dozen major daily newspapers covered the event. To say the very least, it was quite a day.

Silver was the first of three big fires to rage across the Siskiyou. The 2002 Biscuit Fire was the largest at 500,000 acres, followed by last summer’s 190,000-acre Chetco Bar Fire. Almost nothing was salvaged following Biscuit, and the Forest Service’s timid response to Chetco Bar is even worse.

Why the Forest Service no longer attacks these conflagrations in the early hours after they start is a complete mystery to me, as is the agency’s failure to do the kind of salvage and restoration work that followed Silver. NEPA is the same law today that it was in 1987.

Silver would have been much worse had it not been for Ron McCormick’s determination to attack the fire with everything he could find. McCormick was then Siskiyou Forest Supervisor. He retired several years ago and has since written a wonderful and often humorous memoir titled, “Plain Green Wrapper: A Forester’s Story.”

Ron autographed my copy. It reads, “To Jim, an ally in the conservation battle, Ron.” It was a battle for sure.

Editor's Note: in the following weeks, expect a revisit to the Silver Fire and an analysis of the 30 years that have passed. What we've learned, and what we still haven't.

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