August 26, 2001 11:00 pm
GRASS FIRE SPREADS: Firefighters arriving at what was reported as a grass fire Aug. 18 were met by a burning garage, left. Ten to 15 mph winds forced the blaze into the house before backup firefighters could reach the scene at 20th Street and Gekeler Lane. (The Observer/RAY LINKER).
GRASS FIRE SPREADS: Firefighters arriving at what was reported as a grass fire Aug. 18 were met by a burning garage, left. Ten to 15 mph winds forced the blaze into the house before backup firefighters could reach the scene at 20th Street and Gekeler Lane. (The Observer/RAY LINKER).

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

There are going to be some changes in policies and procedures at the La Grande Fire Department following the house fire Aug. 18 at 20th Street and Gekeler Lane.

Among the changes:

More men and equipment will be dispatched immediately to even the smallest of grass or brush fires until cooler weather prevails.

Better communications procedures will be established and maintained between the firefighters in the field and the dispatch center.

Stepped up enforcement procedures involving residents who let their grasses grow too tall will be implemented.

Fire Chief Bruce Weimer had been called out of town Aug. 17-18 to work at the Horse Creek wildfire near Imnaha after Gov. John Kitzhaber invoked the Oregon Conflagration Act. Weimer didnt learn about the house fire until returning.

When I got back, I couldnt understand how wed lost a house that Saturday, but by Tuesday, I could see what they were faced with, Weimer said.

During a Tuesday night session and later, the fire has been critiqued, Weimer said. He has listened to tapes from the 911 dispatch center.

We made some mistakes, but I dont think the outcome would have been different, he said.

The wind blowing the grass fire eastward at 10 to 15 mph in the direction of the house and a large amount of smoke from the fire, which started in a field behind the house, were key factors, Weimer said, in leveling a shed and garage and turning the house into rubble.

There was tall grass in the rear of the two-story house on the 2.12 acres, which included a barn. The empty house and land in the estate of Star Sawyer was for sale for $230,000.

Not realizing the garage was on fire because there was too much smoke to see it and having only three paid firefighters working that day were factors, Weimer said.

There was also a delay in getting the general alarm out after the first engine arrived on the scene. That delay can be attributed to a malfunction of the radio, and the officer in charge not following the order model.

That was an error, but when he made the call, he knew the fire was working in the garage. There was no way to change that result.

The captain called in three times. I suspect he did not wait for a response from the dispatch center to find out if the center had acknowledged he was calling in. The general alarm was finally called in by the engineer from the cab of the fire engine.

After listening to the tape from the dispatch center, Weimer said it was only 3 minutes, 30 seconds from the time the first engine left the station until the general alarm was sounded, about 45 seconds after the crew arrived on the scene.

The request for a general alarm should have been called in as soon as the crew arrived and saw the fire and how threatened the structures were, Weimer said.

But the acting captain grabbed a hose and started fighting the fire, not actually serving as a captain. He was putting out the grass and looping in between the house and garage. It is difficult to identify at what point in time he was calling in the general alarm.

I dont know if the engineer, recognizing that the captain was busy fighting the fire, was calling in the general at the same time.

Weimer said on a general alarm, everybody on duty and off duty is paged and there is a request for resources. All paid and volunteer firefighters are to come if theyre available. Volunteers go to the scene from work, home, wherever.

Paid guys go to the station to get the equipment. The first truck out is a pumper, then the second is the aerial ladder truck, then the next engine and support vehicles. We can modify the order or requirements from the command at the fire scene.

As little as one person could take out a truck, but typically there will be two or three on the second engine. But there is no guarantee.

He said the department has 15 paid people, 12 of whom work shift duty.

Four-person crews work each day. One can be off on vacation, leaving a crew of three, which I think is fairly typical in the state, Weimer said.

That Saturday, five paid firefighters were out of town, Weimer said, and we didnt know how many volunteers. Thats one of the things you live with in a small community.

Counting mutual aid from other departments and a private contractor, 17 firefighters and seven pieces of equipment eventually were on the scene, reports show. Various law enforcement personnel were on hand, including state police, but there was criticism from some onlookers that the city did not block traffic from approaching from the northern end of 20th Street, including a man on a gray horse who meandered down the street, his animal stepping gingerly over 5-inch fire hoses and among the gaping onlookers.

In analyzing the fire, Weimer said he didnt see an error in where the first engine was parked to fight the fire and the spot from where the crew launched its attack. It was spotted along Gekeler on the south side of the house, not quite to the intersection of 20th Street.

They were mentally prepared to fight a grass fire. I cant fault them for not immediately connecting to a fire hydrant. You want an engine fighting a grass fire to be mobile. They carry 750 gallons of water and you can do a lot of firefighting with that, Weimer said.

Apparently the kids who started the fire had tried to fight it near a wood pile, but when we (the first La Grande engine) got there, the wood was burning and the grass along Gekeler was burning. It was obvious it was burning toward the garage. Firefighters could see the fire had already passed the garage on the north side.

We attacked from the west side. The strategy was to knock the fire down from the garage and the house, but there was so much smoke by the woodpile, crews couldnt see that the fire had gotten into the garage.

Weimer said La Grande police officer Lisa Reddington was on the scene before the fire department got there and she watched the fire move from where it started to the garage within 30 seconds. If we had known the garage was on fire, we would have concentrated on that.

The crew on the fire engine could see the grass burning as they approached, coming down 16th Street and then Gekeler.

The mowed grass beside the house had been burning, but that was knocked down quickly. A firefighter was moving to the back of the house and went through the area between the house and garage and saw that the fire was just rolling inside the garage, Weimer said.

A couple of volunteers had heard the call and quickly drove to the scene.

The La Grande Rural Fire Protection District in Island City received an alarm at 3:11 p.m. and arrived on the fire scene at 3:34 p.m. with two engines, a rescue pickup support vehicle and five personnel to fight the fire from the east and north side. That department stayed at the scene until 5:41, when it was called to a fire in its own district.

There is no indication on the fire report when the fire was under control, Weimer said. Nearby residents said it was still going after 4 p.m.

La Grande crews stayed on scene until 5:54 p.m.

We didnt know until way late in the incident that it was an empty house; we were busy applying water to the house. We did a search inside and didnt find any furniture and there were paint cans sitting around.

We went upstairs, and no fire was showing. But the fire, pushed by 10 to 15 mph winds, was coming out of the garage like a blow torch and it went up under the eaves on the northwest corner of the house (closest to the garage) and went up into the attic. The family had used part of the attic as the second floor (bedrooms), and there were hidden spaces in the walls and below the roof that were unfinished.

The fire was under pressure from the wind. The firefighters couldnt see the fire, but the commander saw (from outside) that the roof was sagging and he called the guys out. The studs in the north wall burned, Weimer said.

By then, there was no way to save much of the structure even though both La Grande and Island City firefighters continued to pour water on the structure.

There was so much fire that water did no good, it just vaporized, Weimer said. Water absorbs heat. If youre producing more heat than water, the water will be absorbed and youll lose.

An engine from Union came to assist, and a contract pumper arrived, fighting the grass fire and putting water on the building across 20th Street belonging to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Im surprised it didnt jump 20th Street, Weimer said.