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‘It will never look like that again’: Firefighters reflect, 20 years since the B&B, Central Oregon’s largest wildfire

(Update: Adding comments from firefighter, advisor)

SISTERS, Ore. (KTVZ)-- It's now been 20 years since the B&B Complex Fire -- two big fires that merged into a giant one -- exploded in the Deschutes National Forest near the Cascades crest and Santiam Pass. The 2003 fire scorched more than 90,000 acres, closed U.S. Highway 20 for days and forced evacuations at Camp Sherman and Black Butte Ranch.

In late August of that year, the Bear Butte Fire and the Booth Fire were ignited by lightning. Winds caused both fires to grow rapidly and eventually merge, exploding into what was managed as the B&B Complex Fire. The blaze even changed the itinerary of President George Bush's Central Oregon visit; instead of visiting Camp Sherman, he flew over the blaze, then gave a speech about forest health legislation at the Deschutes County Fairgrounds.

Firefighter Kevin Stock was supposed to go to a concert the day the Bear Butte Fire sparked. He had no idea the fire would be so devastating.

"The thing about that fire was, you know, probably from five minutes out to report, it was probably in the 50 to 100 acre category already," said Stock, who now works as a fire and aviation officer for the Forest Service.

Black Butte Ranch and Camp Sherman were evacuated for weeks.

Joe Stutler, who was a fire advisor to the Forest Service 20 years ago, recalled, "People were frustrated for, you know, a number of days -- 'When can we go back? When can we go back?' But because of the intensity of the fire, it just was impossible to know that we could actually keep the fire from approaching and and threatening those communities and neighborhoods."

No lives or homes were lost to the huge fire, but it cost $38 million to fight and left a legacy visible to Santiam Pass travelers ever since. Eventually, September rainfall helped thousands of firefighters get the upper hand and contain the blaze, but the damage was done and stretched across the skyline.

"I knew on day three they (the Booth and Bear Butte fires) were coming together, and it wasn't going to be much we could do other than protect the important values such as Camp Sherman, Suttle (Lake) and that sort of stuff." Stutler said.

Looking back at the blaze 15 years later, KGW talked with Forest Service officials who said they'd never seen a fire like it -- growing by square miles overnight - and called it a canary in the coal mine, a huge fire that "heralded the arrival of a new epoch in Oregon -- one of bigger, hotter and more destructive wildfires."

Stutler says the area is now even more at risk for wildfires, saying the state does not have a fire season any more, moreso a fire year.

"What it looked like on September 5th of 2003, it will never look like that again with climate change," he said.

ODOT traffic camera at Santiam Pass caught the 2003 B&B Complex fire tearing through the area
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Isabella Warren

Isabella Warren is a Multimedia Journalist for NewsChannel 21.


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