Each year Gabe Howe of Ashland hikes deep into his beloved Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area to really get away from it all.
But on June 21, it was if he had hiked into a virtual video game.
Out of nowhere, F-15 fighter jets streaked across the sky, complete with dogfights and evasive maneuvers as if someone was shooting missiles at them — despite the fact that it’s fire season in this remote area.
“It was like a war zone,” says Howe, executive director of the Siskiyou Mountain Club. “These fighter jets were chasing each other around, sonic booms and even shooting off flares. That’s not the experience I’m looking for.
“It’s not conducive to the management of a wilderness,” says Howe, who shot a short video of a spent flare in the air. “It doesn’t seem they should be doing that in a place of that level of protection.”
Turns out the Oregon Air National Guard enjoys the Kalmiopsis for the same reason Howe does: Getting away from people.
“We don’t like to fly over populated areas,” says Guard Senior Master Sgt. Jennifer Shirar at Klamath Falls’ Kingsley Field, the only F-15 fighter training facility in the United States.
Guard pilots train on weekdays and the occasional Saturday in so-called “Military Operations Areas” mostly in Central Oregon but occasionally in southwest Oregon, smack-dab in one of Oregon’s wildest recesses, Guard records show.
The Kalmiopsis is part of the Dolphin MOA, a secondary training area that the Guard can use without the consent, blessing or even knowledge of Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest officials because the military and the Federal Aviation Administration control the airspace.
Shirar declined to say how often F-15s enter that area, but she did say training involved dogfights and the shooting of flares.
The flares are actually magnesium pellets that, when ignited, burn less than 10 seconds but at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Guard’s 2002 environmental assessment for their use.
The burn temperature is hotter than the aircraft exhaust, so it attracts and decoys heat-seeking weapons fired at the aircraft, the EA states.
A 2017 Guard environmental study states pilots don’t fire the flares lower than 5,000 feet above the ground — far higher than the 1,000-foot minimum to ensure no wildfires occur. Also, every safety precaution is taken, including shots to ensure the flares burn out before they hit the 5,000-foot elevation, Shirar says.
“This is our state, too,” Shirar says. “We live here. We recreate here. We want to keep our state beautiful as well.”
Amanda Lucas, the unit aviation officer for the Forest Service and federal Bureau of Land Management in southwest Oregon, says there have not been any documented fires cause by National Guard flares in Western Oregon, but a few have been found in Central Oregon.
However, the forest has documented one fire triggered by a fired flare, Lucas says.
That occurred during President George W. Bush’s 2004 visit to the Rogue Valley, when fighter planes deployed flares as general protection for Air Force One from possible ground-to-surface missiles during landing, Lucas says.
The small fire was in the Ashland watershed and was extinguished, Lucas says.
Howe says his Siskiyou Mountain Club crew was in the Kalmiopsis last year on the eve of the Chetco Bar fire when they saw the F-15s practice dogfighting and fire flares.
The Chetco Bar fire, which eventually enveloped 191,197 acres including portions of the Kalmiopsis in the upper Chetco River Basin, was caused by lightning, and Howe says “unequivocally” that no spent flares ignited any portion of that fire.
When the crew returned, Howe says he talked to them individually about what they saw and their accounts were consistent. They were also consistent with rumors Howe had heard from botanists and others who venture into the Kalmiopsis.
However, he didn’t say anything at the time because he didn’t think people would believe him.
“It just sounds like a conspiracy,” Howe says. “Living in Ashland, people would associate me with the anti-vaccination crowd or the chemtrails crowd.
“But I saw it with my own two eyes,” he says.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.