All Hands on Deck: Stories from the Wiley Creek Fire

Please join us for a special event on June 3, 2024

The South Santiam Watershed Council invites you to sit with the group of individuals who made the tough calls and decisions on the Wiley Creek Fire in 2023.
Hear their stories from the first wisp of smoke to the last ember blinking out.
Hear their thoughts about how they made their decisions and what the impact was, both in that moment and in the long run.

Graphic of conditions making wildfire more likely: terrain, high Eastern winds, high heat, fuel types, drought, low humidityIt is August 7th, 2023. Deep in the forest, yet just 6 miles from Sweet Home, a whisper of smoke rises on the horizon. With very dry fuels and strong east winds, fanning flames in the steep and rugged terrain east of town, our community was facing a serious threat.

Thanks to the foresight, dedication, and actions of local fire managers and partners, what could have been a catastrophe was instead a triumph of preparation and teamwork.

The Wiley Creek fire remained relatively small at 245 acres. No structures were damaged, and there was no loss of life. From start to end, the fire was contained in just four weeks and a few days. This is part of the story, but the success is built from something less tangible.

There’s a saying that goes luck favors the prepared. Nowhere was this more evident than during the response to the Wiley Creek Fire.

Over the last four months, South Santiam Watershed Council staff have met a number of times with the people who responded to the Wiley Creek Fire to hear their stories and learn more about what made this response work.

These responders, representing state, local and federal government, alongside private industry, are individuals who are each from different entities with varied missions, spans of control and vested interests.

However, every one of these groups has been working together for ten or more years, creating opportunities to understand each other’s strengths and develop relationships that are rooted in time and trust.

This is the first time that the council has been at the table with this particular community of forest managers and wildfire specialists. One thing we noticed early on was that nearly every individual was quick to give credit to partners in other organizations and entities, while downplaying their own contributions. At each meeting, we’d hear the words “If not for…” followed by yet another story of people working together, building a foundation meant to keep the communities and resources as safe as they possibly could.

  • If not for Cascade Timber Consulting’s nimble thinking and problem solving...
  • If not for a quick decision from the Forest Service to treat the fire as though it was already on private lands...
  • If not for the years spent riding in pickups together on forest roads to figure out how to make a patchwork landscape into a coherent one for wildfire risk reduction...
  • If not for Sweet Home Fire knowing how to reach anxious residents to share information and reduce the administrative burden on other responders...

Over the course of the several meetings, the richness of a whole story began to emerge. If not for these, and so much else, luck would have had much less to favor.

While working with fire is a year-round job, summers in the Western Cascades are particularly busy for fire response teams. Each fire is different, making each response different and complex. Managing a fire involves many moving parts and organizations. While each fire will get a debrief, there is often little time to sit and reflect deeply on the outcomes of their work.

Wildfire can be unpredictable. It can be scary. The work that wildfire specialists do is hard, and there’s no glamor to it. Fire is a part of the landscape here, however, and something that we will always need to plan for. Sharing information with each other before, during and after a wildfire response can help make future wildfires more manageable.

Posted in
Wiley Creek Fire in progress, 2023
Wiley Creek Fire in progress, 2023

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