As I write this, the smoke that has been plaguing Southern Oregon is starting to abate. Thankfully, the Mile Post 97 Fire, which started near Canyonville on July 24, is on its way to being contained. The fire did not damage any structures, but at least nine wildland firefighters were injured, some after rocks and debris rolled down steep hills and struck them.
This fire began as an illegal campfire right off of Interstate 5 near mile post 97. Tough conditions—steep, rocky terrain; wind; and the darkness of night—hampered the response, and the fire ran rapidly uphill, eventually growing to nearly 13,000 acres.
In an article that appeared on OPB, Douglas Forest Protective Association District Manager Patrick Skrip described the challenging conditions: "It doesn't get much more complicated than this," he said. “We have a major highway artery, Interstate 5, power lines that serve Medford and Grants Pass, and we have a natural gas pipeline through the heart of this fire."
We in Southwest Oregon understand that wildfires are part of this beautiful region. The forests here are adapted to wildfire. But years of fire suppression, poor forest management, and increasing temperatures seem to be making wildland fire seasons longer and more intense.
Pipelines, power lines, and other preexisting infrastructure are already complicating the situation. So why would we add a new 229-mile, 36-inch high-pressure natural gas pipeline—to be constructed in steep, rugged, and increasingly fire-prone country—into the mix?
Many landowners along the Pacific Connector Pipeline route cite the risk of wildfires as one of the top reasons for not wanting the pipeline running through their properties.
Rural residents understand that when a wildfire breaks out, the first responders are often their local rural fire departments, many of which are staffed mostly or completely by volunteers.
Mike Williams, one of the landowners featured in Our Land, Our Lives, knows firsthand the risks volunteer firefighters face. His father, Virgil Williams, was volunteer fire chief for the Fairview Rural Fire Protection District for over 25 years.
“Dad was always saying, ‘How are they going to fight a fire if there is one?’” says Mike. “And the company says, ‘Oh well, we’ll get you the equipment.’ But do these volunteers want to fight a gas fire?”
Mike’s point is that volunteers already spend precious time and energy training and responding to fires and medical incidents. Now we're asking them to put themselves at risk fighting a high-intensity fire that no training could prepare them for? In fact, the same could be said for career firefighters. They have a tough enough job as it is.
Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, or FUSEE, has come out publicly against the Jordan Cove project. “Firefighters will be forced to fight pipeline fires that threaten forests and local communities, and fight forest fires that threaten the pipeline,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director for FUSEE. His organization cites several fire-related reasons for opposing the project:
High risk of a pipeline leak or rupture igniting a high-intensity wildfire
High risk of a wildfire burning across the pipeline and triggering an explosion
The need for constant fuels maintenance of the flashy fuels within the pipeline's clearcut corridor, most likely with chemical herbicides to limit growth of flammable brush
The fracked gas pipeline will add to global warming, worsening fire risks
All of these points add up to putting more firefighters and more communities at risk. Is it really worth it?