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Guest comment: Reveal facts on rural mass gathering and fire

A few weeks ago I turned in an Oregon Public information Request to the Oregon Department of Forestry, The Dalles office. The purpose of the request was information regarding fire protection in the area of Wolf Run Road and the National Forest boundary. I also took the request in and explained it.

The Oregon Department of Forestry, with some other agencies, assigns priority levels to fires in certain areas based on risk of loss of life and property. I knew this, as we have been using property on Sevenmile Hill for 25 years and they had told me it was a level one.

The other questions I asked were availability of equipment and response timeliness. Last, I asked about anticipated dangers from a fire in that area of canyons and scrub oak pine forest.

The response was evasive and never really answered my questions.

My experience with fires over 30 years is that the volunteer firefighters of the area arrive first and they are the ones who put out the fire. I can recount numerous fires in detail where this has been the case.

In fires last fall resulting from lightning, my place was the first fire from the first storm. The Fifteenmile volunteers started arriving immediately and two cats arrived in minutes, both private operators to stop the fire, which was running in high wind. They were able to stop it from continuing east where cattle were grazing on the hills.

The fire ran probably a mile in 10 or 15 minutes. Had there been houses there, they would have burned. My feedbunk did burn and would have completely had volunteers not stopped it.

Oregon Forestry did come to the fire, as I am in their protection area. But their Cat and so on was the last on the scene and basically the volunteers had it surrounded before it got to my place. Wolf Run is a lot further. It sure took more than 30 minutes for the Cat to get to my place.

We are being asked to accept massive public gatherings in our zone, one where there is no structure fire protection for homes or buildings. We are being asked to accept fire plans that don’t even admit the priority level of a fire in those locations where houses, like Sevenmile, are interspersed with timber, oak and tall grass — canyons where fires can run and not be stopped except with helicopters dropping water.

Helicopters may or may not be available and are not located locally. Fires draft up out of canyons, so they don’t send firefighters down in them.

Those canyons go between numerous dwellings and outbuildings of neighbors, some only a quarter-mile or so away.

Some residents have only one driveway in and would be unable to escape should a fire get in front of them. I can’t accept the fact, and others shouldn’t either, that the real facts are being withheld.

As reference, remember last year’s $10 million to $12 million fire? Remember Sheldon Ridge Fire some years ago? Both of those fires could have been prevented by initial response and completion of a fire line during the night before the winds came up here in the gorge the next day.

In both cases it was the Forestry people who failed to do that, in Sheldon Ridge, by not completing the fire line the first night, even though they were only a quarter-mile from finishing it.

The local men on the Cats tried to tell the forestry boss to let them finish, but he sent them home. Next day, winds came and it got away.

In last year’s event, the fire in the watershed was the only fire not put out that first night. The Fifteenmile volunteers responded to Ketchum Road and put that fire out. They then went over the Cherry Heights, up off the end of Wells Road, and put that out with some help from one of the local fire Departments. The Fifteenmile volunteers, over and over again, saved buildings, homes and crops from fire.

The public can’t go in the watershed, so no volunteers could go down there. In fact, Forestry did not go down to fight and contain that fire at all that night.

It’s time to tell the truth about Oregon agencies who are supposed to represent all citizens. The process to-date on this has been that they fill out Open Mass Gathering Permits we never see and don’t come to hearings so they don’t have to answer these questions.

If you value your property and your house, I’m sure you would, like me, like to see the real facts represented. We obviously need new local leadership in this agency.

Liz Turner is a Wasco County rancher.

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