The past week has been a grueling time for many residents of The Dalles and Wasco County.
The raging Rowena Fire, coupled with a handful of smaller blazes that broke out Friday, has raised the level of not only fire danger, but human uncertainty.
As emergency personnel and public works employees worked long, grueling hours in the heat and smoke to assure local families were safe from the wind-driven flames, from time to time they encountered the frustration of a weary, frightened and frustrated populace.
It’s important we remind ourselves that these people are working for our benefit not just individually, but as a community. From time to time, the measures they have taken may have seemed extreme to individuals who just wanted to make sure their homes were still there and still safe. But the emergency workers who are staffing the roadblocks, or securing houses from flames, are working as part of a larger picture.
If they hope to protect the public from one of Mother Nature’s most dauntless and destructive forces, they have to focus on the overall strategy of battling the blaze and securing property and person, including their own. We may not be perfectly privy to that strategy, but it’s there all the same. And it doesn’t always allow time for public debate on some of its specific details.
The people who attended a public meeting Aug. 7 at The Dalles High School heard about the dangers of the fire and the challenges of directing a defense against it.
The wind patterns and dry, hot weather around The Dalles at this time of year make for particularly hazardous and changeable firefighting conditions. The weather, hotter and dryer than usual this year, has launched the Mid-Columbia into fire season earlier and with more intensity than a typical year. Unfortunately, the Rowena Fire may not be these visiting firefighters’ last trip to town. Fire season usually lasts until the seasonal rains return in September or October.
We owe the people who have worked on the fire an enormous debt of gratitude. While not every home and property has escaped unscathed, the losses have been minimized by the skill and experience of the people on the fire lines and the people who oversee the fire response.
Of particular note in this scenario is John Ingrao, incident commander of the Oregon Fire Marshal’s Green Team, who is working with John Buckman, incident commander for the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Team 1 to coordinate the response to the Rowena Fire.
Ingrao is a veteran of Wasco County fires. He was incident commander of last year’s Government Flats Complex, and has worked on five other conflagrations in and around The Dalles, including the 1998 Rowena Fire, the Microwave Fire and the Sheldon Ridge Fire, all of which presented a significant threat to homes in the wildland-urban interface area of Wasco County.
Experience like his — and Buckman’s — can’t be bought, but it is provided through coordinated state conflagration response. In the case of state fire marshal response, Ingrao told the public at the Aug. 6 briefing, resources converge from all over the state in response to a conflagration. They work under the authority of the local fire chief, Bob Palmer in our case, to apply the necessary resources to the blaze.
It is a coordinated mechanism that works, but to work most effectively, it needs the support and cooperation of homeowners. Defensible space around houses, removal of flammable fuels on property, clear and visible marking of addresses and wide, uncluttered access into and out of properties is vital to the success of their missions. In last year’s Government Flats fires, the lack of those features contributed significantly to the losses incurred during that fire.
In the Okanogan County fires of Washington state this year, we’ve seen the devastation that can occur with more than 300 houses destroyed in a rampant blaze. We’ve been more than fortunate to avoid that level of damage in Wasco County thanks to the strategies and cooperation employed here.
So take a moment to thank the firefighters and other emergency personnel you see around town today. They put their lives on the line here and have made our lives better as a result.
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