Curry County officials say a group sponsored by Jackson County-based Rogue Climate has admitted responsibility for the July 1 start of the nearly 400-acre Lobster Creek fire that cost more than $2 million to control.
Curry County Sheriff John Ward said the leaders of the group camped at Lobster Creek Youth Campground told Curry County Parks Director Josh Hopkins that they will take responsibility for the wildfire and have insurance to pay for the costs to extinguish it.
The Lobster Creek fire started on private land about 12 miles northeast of Gold Beach. Pushed by strong winds, the fire burned primarily in slash and young tree plantations. It is now considered 100 percent contained and showing only minimal fire activity.
Investigators have not yet released information on how the fire began, but as of the weekend it had cost $2.04 million and required 700 personnel working a total of 36,100 hours to control, according to an Oregon Department of Forestry news release.
The fire started sometime before 2 p.m. July 1 in the Curry County-owned Lobster Creek Youth Campground, jumped the road and quickly spread into private timber lands, said Ward. Driven by steady winds, it seesawed east and west, burning slowly in the forest undergrowth. A few spot fires were started — caused when wind carries flaming material into fresh terrain — the largest of them about a quarter-acre, Fields said. The ODF, Coos Forest Protective Association and Curry County Sheriff’s Office are investigating the incident, saying only that it was human-caused.
People at the campground apparently notified officials of the blaze.
“The callers stated there was a fire in the meadow below the camp and that they were not able to contain it,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.
A group of about 20 adults and 20 teenagers were at a retreat at the popular campground when the fire began, and all were evacuated. The campground area was not damaged.
When questioned by sheriff’s investigators last week, the group told them that, “upon the advice of their attorney,” they would not provide any detailed answers regarding how the fire started, Ward said.
“It was evident they attempted to extinguish the fire initially,” Ward said, “ but deputies were only provided very basic information from a few campers on what they saw and the cause of the fire.”
“I have to give credit for the fast response of our local CFPA and fire agencies, along with the logging companies and their equipment, who got on top of the situation and saved Lobster Creek Youth Camp from destruction,” Ward said.
Contacted by the Mail Tribune for comment, Rogue Climate Director Hannah Sohl did not directly respond when asked if the group was taking responsibility for the blaze. In an email response, she said, ““We continue to be in communication with those connected to this situation, and are grateful for the efforts of all those who helped protect lives and property.”
The group camped at the Lobster Creek site, which they called the Next Generation Climate Justice Action Camp, teaches youth how to protest on behalf of environmental justice, according to its website. It was hosted by the Civil Liberties Defense Center and Rogue Climate, both active environmental advocates. The weeklong camp has previously been held at Camp Latgawa, about 5 miles southwest of Fish Lake, east of Medford.
Some of the activities planned included how to plan and run environmental campaigns, media outreach skills, nonviolent protest planning, “decolonization” and “know-your-rights” trainings, according to a statement on the defense center’s website.
It also says members support “movements that seek to dismantle the political and economic structures at the root of social inequality and environmental destruction,” and provide litigation, education, legal and strategic resources for others interested in doing the same.
Rogue Climate focuses on education and activism to curb climate change, and has been involved in many efforts in Southern Oregon, including opposition to the proposed Pacific Connector liquified natural gas pipeline and Jordan Cove processing terminal in Coos Bay. It has supported solar installations and other forms of clean energy. Its office is situated just north of Phoenix, but it has a Medford address.
An art group — Signal Fire — was also slated to participate in the Lobster Creek event to teach participants how to make impactful art for protests.
Participants in the camp had planned to travel to Coos Bay to protest the LNG pipeline and terminal, but called off the protest after the fire broke out.
“We cut the camp short and sent kids home to be with their families,” Sohl told The World newspaper of Coos Bay.
Jefrey Chase of the Oregon Department of Forestry described the final stages of mop-up of the fire as “slow, dirty and hazardous work that involves methodically digging out residual heat that often lurks in stumps and roots.”
Mop-up operations — including work to prevent a rekindle — started Thursday, with a “goal to seek out and destroy any hot spots” that pose a risk of escape, Chase said. Night crews used hand-held infrared scanners to find and identify hot spots.
ODF Incident Management Team public information officer Tom Fields said initial attacks on the blaze by firefighters with the Coos Forest Protective Association were critical in keeping the wildfire manageable.
“They got a lot of good work done,” Fields said. “They got a good line in there, and did a great job of holding it at south end of the fire. This was wind-driven from the north, and they held tight on that. It gave us something great to work with.”
Sawyers will cut down burned trees that could fall across containment lines and start new fires, and build lines around some areas within the burn scar that were untouched in hopes of keeping them unscathed, ODF officials said.
“We’ve got a lot of fire season left,” Fields said. “The last thing we want to do is leave and have it restart.”
No structures were burned in the fire, nor were there any injuries, he added.
Smoke was thickest the first two days of the fire, but wafted away after that.
“It was a lot of hard work from firefighters out there,” Fields said. “... There were a couple of real tough days of wind, pushing on those lines.”
This report includes information originally reported in the Curry Coastal Pilot.