July 25, 2001 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

A wildfire near Meacham that cast a pall of smoke over La Grande for two days in August was caused by a Union Pacific Railroad equipment malfunction.

Pete Norkeveck, an investigator with the Oregon Department of Forestry, said Wednesday the Milepost 244 fire, which blackened more than 4,000 acres in and around Meacham Canyon and cost $3 million to fight, was caused by a malfunctioning braking system.

The fire broke out Aug. 15. Another Meacham-area fire, the Milepost 245 fire, which ignited last Aug. 6, was also caused by railroad equipment, Norkeveck said. That fire burned 121 acres of federal forest land and cost about $230,000 to suppress.

Although the investigation has ended, state officials have not yet determined how much, if anything, the railroad will be required to reimburse for firefighting. More than 80 percent of the fire was fought on land within the Umatilla National Forest, and John Robertson, a fire official with the Umatilla, said Wednesday the U.S. Attorney must review the case before a penalty can be set. State forestry is responsible for the 11 percent of the fire that burned private land.

It doesnt usually take us this long (to determine the cause of a fire), Norkeveck said.

Part of the delay was caused by the lack of timely reporting by the railroad, Norkeveck said.

Shortly after the Milepost 244 fire, the Department of Forestry was granted an injunction in Union County Circuit Court, requiring the railroad to release several pieces of evidence to investigators.

According to state documents, the railroad twice refused to turn over braking mechanisms, metal wheel scrapings and other parts considered evidence in the fires cause.

The railroad remains under an injunction keeping employees from any areas suspected of being a place where fires began.

The forestry department also has prepared a fire prevention plan that the railroad is required to follow during times of high fire risk, said Tim Keith, a forester with the state.

The plan covers fire education, improved maintenance of equipment, and regular patrols during high and extreme fire conditions in the forest. The railroad is responsible for maintaining the right of way adjacent to the tracks, he said. A similar plan is in place for electrical utilities that own power lines and equipment crossing forested land.

John Buckman of the Pendleton state forestry office said he has calculated that over the past 15 years, about 54 fires throughout the Northeast Oregon area have been caused by railroad activity.

Railroad spokesman Mike Furtney of the Union Pacifics San Francisco office, said this morning he is not familiar with the new Oregon fire prevention plan.

In some places we carry water cars on trains, he said. We maintain locomotives and equipment so the number of sparks can be reduced to the lowest factor.

Norkeveck said Wednesday that the state is expected to make a decision soon on the amount of reimbursement, if any, owed by the railroad.