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La Grande Observer 11/28/14

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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow LANDSLIDE HITS SCOUT CAMP

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LANDSLIDE HITS SCOUT CAMP

By Gary Fletcher

Observer Staff Writer

WALLOWA LAKE — Some terrified 10- and 11-year-olds and their parents from Pendleton and the Tri-Cities escaped from a Boy Scout camp dining hall about 4 p.m. Thursday before the building was carried away by a flash flood and crashed into trees.

Thundershowers high in the hills above the camp filled streams and caused the flooding and mudslide, officials said.

Some of the group of 30 Webelo Scouts who were outside the dining hall saw a "black waterfall and trees falling, and warned the others," said Don Butler, an employee at the Blue Mountain Council's Wallowa Lake Scout Camp. Later someone reported the smell of fresh dirt in the air.

The group headed for Butler's cabin 200 feet on the opposite side of the West Fork of the Wallowa River.

The last of them were crossing a suspension footbridge across the river when they looked back to see the mess hall they'd just evacuated, carried down the hill in a mudslide and crash into trees.

Camp director Monte Job's pickup truck washed down the hill and into the river. Trapped inside was Blondie, his 11-year-old yellow lab.

The scout group made it to Butler's cabin.

Then the river changed course, bypassed the suspension foot bridge built in 1996 and cut a new channel within 20 feet of the cabin.

Two residences became an island. A tree service company in the area used its cherry picker to pluck a man from one of them.

Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen and Undersheriff Steve Rogers arrived on the scene to make an assessment. Those plans were thrown in reverse when a second wall of water came down at them, smashing two camp staff cars together.

The sheriff's team began going door to door downstream, evacuating the area to the Methodist Camp, and then contacting some residents close to the river on the east side.

One resident reported that the high water running by her house lasted over a half hour, then began to subside. In the meantime they saw coolers, firewood and entire logs rushing by, carried atop dark waves.

The muddy water receded and Rogers returned to the camp with search and rescue personnel who located a person upstream who had been cut off by the debris flow.

Once all the people were accounted for, a search and rescue team along with Don Holum, the new county dog control officer, retrieved Blondie from the pickup in the river. The dog had been there about three hours.

Assessing the situation overhead was a U.S. Forest Service helicopter carrying Wallowa County Commission Chairman Mike Hayward. Hayward had issued a county declaration of disaster for the south Wallowa Lake area.

For a short time, residents were warned not to drink from the south lake water system because of turbidity. The system was checked and the warning was lifted. Shortly after 8:30 p.m. most residents were allowed back in the area.

People, however, were not allowed to return to two marooned and threatened buildings, and eight other structures considered at risk due to the changing river channel and debris flows.

The American Red Cross set up a shelter for displaced people at the Joseph Community Center. The agency also opened a canteen at the south lake for emergency workers.

There were no reported injuries or deaths.

Thundershowers high in the headwaters of Adams, Johnson and BC creeks caused them to rise. Apparently saturated soils up BC Creek liquefied and came roaring down the steep slope.

The National Weather Service was forecasting clearer skies for the area over the weekend.

The debris flow was several feet thick. Woody debris created a surface skiff approximately 200 feet in diameter at the south end of the lake.

Boaters were advised to watch out for logs and debris floating on the lake.

"We really appreciate people's cooperation," said Matthew Marmor, Wallowa County Emergency Program manager. Marmor was referring to the residents who cooperated in leaving their cabins, as well as all the volunteers and agencies that responded to help.

"This community responds well together," Marmor said.

A similar flash flood about four years ago struck the Hurricane Creek Campground, forcing people from their tents. There were no injuries. Earlier, gullywashers took out the Hurricane Creek Road.

Reach Gary Fletcher at 541-426-3255 or at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

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