A string of rainstorms brought a watery curtain down Friday on the Biscuit fire, the biggest and most expensive single wildfire in the nation this year at nearly 500,000 acres and more than $154 million in firefighting costs.
Nearly four months after the blaze started, control was not declared until more than 2 inches of rain fell on the fire, said M.J. Harvie, fire staff officer for Siskiyou National Forest.
To date $154.9 million has been spent putting out the fire, and almost $7 million more has gone toward rehabilitation, such as replacing road culverts and seeding burned hillsides, Harvie said.
The runner-up on costs was the Rodeo-Chediski fire in Arizona, which ran up a bill of $48.7 million while burning through 468,636 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. That fire destroyed nearly 500 homes and forced 30,000 people to evacuate.
Biscuit accounted for nearly half the acreage burned in Oregon and was part of the nation’s second-biggest fire season in 50 years. In all, 6.7 million acres burned and $1.4 billion was spent fighting fires, the NIFC said.
Kindled by lighting that raked southern Oregon on July 13, the Biscuit fire hid out in a remote corner of the Siskiyou National Forest’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness for days.
With crews and equipment scarce because of fires burning across the West, Biscuit reared up to threaten 17,000 people.
Originally named Florence for a creek near its birthplace, the fire was renamed Biscuit after the city of Florence 120 miles north said it was losing tourists.
At its peak, Biscuit was sending up mushroom-shaped plumes of smoke tens of thousands of feet tall. Thousands of people packed up and left while nearly 7,000 firefighters based at four camps fought the fire.
Mike Lohrey, who took overall command, saw the fire’s potential to grow to much more than 500,000 acres, reaching the Pacific and the Cascade Range. Because the fire was in rugged country with few roads, he adopted a bold strategy of burning out hundreds of thousands of acres to stop the spread.
When the fire burned through Oak Flat along the Illinois River west of Selma, logger Jerry Sorensen and his wife, Gayle, stayed on their 52-acre farm, even after firefighters set their meadow ablaze as a firebreak and drove away.
“You had fire on three sides of you,” Sorensen said. “There was a lot of stuff falling. When these hillsides ignite, it makes a lot of noise. It sucked a lot of air and sounded like jets taking off.
“You get scared. You don’t know if you made the right decision. On the other hand, we thought we’ve got the creek here, green lawns, the garden, and all the stuff that won’t burn. We just thought this was the place to be.”