May 23 2019
Crews working the Chetco Bar wildfire had more to consider than just the flames once it spread into a quarantine zone where a disease was devastating trees.
Usually the parking lot at Brookings' harbor is filled with boat trailers, rusty pickup trucks and tourists.
But this day in late August is not a usual day. There's a wildfire burning five miles from town — and the vehicles coming through are much, much larger.
Jesse Dubuque, a resource advisor for the Chetco Bar fire, directs the driver of a fire truck to a large shallow pool, about 6-inches deep with metal tracks leading in and out.
"Vehicles that have been up on the fire or going up to the fire, they come and they drive up on to it," she says.
It's called a weed wash.
"There's a pressurized water system that sprays all the contaminants (and) dirt," Dubuque says.
This is the front line in preventing the spread of sudden oak death, a plant disease that is killing trees by the thousands along Oregon's south coast. Tanoaks are the primary species affected, although there are dozens of the plants and shrubs that can be carriers.
Sudden oak death has had ecological as well as economic consequences for the timber and plant nursery industries. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has quarantined part of Oregon's south coast to keep the disease contained.
The Chetco Bar Fire in southwest Oregon was by far the largest wildfire in the state this year. It's burned just over 190,000 acres, but is now mostly contained. At its height, though, it was the nation's number one fire priority, spreading to within five miles of the coastal town of Brookings — and right down into the quarantine area.
Lead fire resource advisor Linn Gassaway says this wildfire posed a huge challenge to keeping sudden oak death from escaping beyond Oregon and other states where it's already become a problem.
"We have firefighters from Iowa and California and Washington, Montana — all over the place. We don't want that to be moved to those locations," she said.
The weed wash is one of the last stops for firefighters before they're sent back home — usually after a 14-day on duty.
"They can't leave the fire and get their paperwork process and ultimately get paid until they check this box," Dubuque said.
But there's another side to this story.
Scientists are looking at the possibility that the wildfire itself could actually help control the disease within Oregon.
That's because the only real tool they've had to slow the spread of sudden oak death in the past is fire.
"If you have tanoak affected in an infected area, you try to remove the tanoak by cutting and piling and burning," said Steve Boyer, with the U.S. Forest Service in Gold Beach, Oregon.
Burning knocks back the spores and gets rid of host material.
Boyer said there were slash piles of infected tanoak still waiting to be burned up in the forest, right in the path of the Chetco Bar fire.
Based on fire maps, more than 20 sudden oak death sites burned in the wildfire — most along the Chetco River. That's less than one-fifth of the known disease locations, but it's still something, said U.S. Forest Service plant pathologist Ellen Michaels Goheen.
"I think it could be a reprieve from rapid spread. But we'll just have to see just how much of the tan Oak there still is. How hot it burned through," she said.
This is especially promising because conditions this year were perfect for the moisture-loving disease.
"It was a really wet winter," Boyer said. "We were going to start seeing a lot of positive trees popping up."
Forest managers will begin to learn answers to these questions later this fall, once the Chetco Bar fire has finally fizzled out.