By Ron Brown
The Biscuit Fire was the biggest fire of the year in the U.S. ten years ago and the most costly to fight. It used up almost all the firefighting budget for the Forest Service for 2002.
It was costly for some local people as well. Mostly, it was timber and wilderness resources that were burned, except for a historic ranch deep in the Illinois River canyon country, where Boy Scouts had camped for years.
The McCaleb Boy Scout Camp sits along the crystal clear waters of the Illinois River, nestled deep in a timbered canyon that today is recovering well from the 2002 Biscuit Fire inferno. When the fire roared through here, there was little scout officials could do but wait and see. This is what they found: charred ruins of almost everything.
“There was one Adirondack, which is a sleeping shelter that didn’t burn. Everything else burnt to the ground,” says McCaleb Camp Committeeman, Alvin Spears. “In fact, I helped rebuild some of the superstructures over a couple of vault toilets and the vault was of course concrete. And it came up to ground level and then there was a wooden structure on top of it. And the only thing left was the nails. There wasn’t even very much ash! That fire was so hot, it just took it right down and vaporized it!”
“We were hopeful that it was going to survive, that they’d stop the fire before it got here. But, after coming back from camp, we found out that it had been overrun by the fire,” recalls John Krawczyk, the Scout Properties Committeeman.
No one was hurt, but almost all the buildings on the 106-acre ranch were gone, and so was most of the timber, charred or dying. Ten years ago, when the Biscuit Fire was just getting started, scout leaders were wondering what would become of their property out on the Illinois River. Some of their worst fears were realized, but now they say maybe it was something of a blessing in disguise.
“There was a silver lining only because the community, principally Josephine County, stepped up and did a lot of work out here,” Spears recalls. “And folks came from Medford, too. In fact, our first trees that were replanted were from a troop from Medford.”
“I guess it was, in some ways, a mixed blessing. A lot of the structures were in need of some work and repair, since they were so old. This gave us a fresh start in a way. And the motivations to get it done!” says Krawczyk.
“Kids’ll learn a ton about how nature works, how even though it looks devastated now, in a few years it’ll be green and luscious again,” says Former Scout Committeeman, Pat Fahey.
It’s getting there. Most of the 3,000 plus trees planted are already more than head high. The house that burned is now replaced and new toilet facilities are being completed. A new forest service bridge is in place and a new footbridge replaced an old log bridge that collapsed. The swinging bridge high over the river still remains, and a bubbling spring supplies water to the camp.
From across the river, you can see the burned timberline of the federal land next to the new green trees growing, after the scouts salvaged what they could, to help pay expenses and make the property safe for kids. Volunteers, with donated materials, did all of it.