By Martha Mendoza and Garance Burke, The Associated Press

Choosing firefighters for strike team

Union County Fire Defense Board Chief Larry Wooldridge is the leader of the local strike team, which is called on when resources are needed for wildland fires throughout Oregon and the western side of the country.

Wooldridge said once he is called to provide local fire resources, he contacts the county’s fire chiefs to see if there are any firefighters to spare.

“I wait to hear back from them to find out my next step,” he said, adding there may not be enough resources available to send. “(This time) it was pretty slim in Union County. I extended the request to Baker, Umatilla and Wallowa counties.”

Wooldridge said each chief determines who has the proper training to fight the fire and also must weigh whether the department should risk not having that personnel in case there is a fire locally to respond to.

“They’re all volunteer fire departments, (and) they need to not make a huge impact on the daily response (at home),” Wooldridge said.

Additionally, the fire chief noted that while the most likely culprits of sparking a wildfire (such as high temperatures, low humidity and lightning) are reduced significantly in the colder season, that doesn’t mean there won’t be wildfires.

“It’s windy and dry out (in Union County) now,” Wooldridge said. “One of the biggest fires we had in (the La Grande Rural fire) district was in February. We can get a large fire out of (fire season).”

— Cherise Kaechele, The Observer

Four firefighters from Union County and two from Wallowa County are now fighting against California’s deadliest fire in its history.

Forty-two people are dead and at least 200 people are missing after the Camp Fire started in Northern California.

Union County Fire Defense Board Chief Larry Wooldridge said Tim Wagoner and JB Brock from the La Grande Rural Fire Department and Colby Thompson and Casey Martin from the North Powder Fire Department were sent to California, along with Dean Brown and Amanda McHatton from Wallowa County.

“They are at the Camp Fire outside of Chico,” Wooldridge told The Observer on Tuesday.

He said the firefighters’ assignments change every time they’re out, and this time they are working on support operations. He added they were just getting off a 27-hour shift when he talked to them Tuesday morning.

Wooldridge said he wasn’t surprised when he was asked for resources last Thursday.

“I started making calls that night,” he said. “The crews left here on Friday about 2 p.m. and arrived at the base camp in Chico by
4 a.m.”

Wooldridge said the local fire crews will likely work for a 16-day period in California.

“They’re not expected back here until after Thanksgiving,” Wooldridge said. “It’s really a testament to these guys that they are leaving their families to help in this fire.”

While the origins of the fire are still under investigation, The Associated Press reported it may have been caused by a sparking utility line.

According to the AP article, a day before the fire began, the giant utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co. contacted Betsy Ann Cowley, saying the company needed access to her property in Pulga, California, because its power lines were causing sparks — and the fire that incinerated the neighboring town of Paradise and killed at least 42 people started Thursday near Cowley’s property.

On Monday, fire investigators declared the area surrounding the power lines on Cowley’s property, which is in an oak-filled canyon, a crime scene. Security guards would not let PG&E inspectors pass.

Cowley was on vacation last Wednesday when she got the surprise email from PG&E. Details of that exchange, described to The Associated Press, combined with the utility’s track record in California wildfire history, has again brought the company under scrutiny.

The email said that crews needed to come to her property to work on the high-power lines, Cowley said. PG&E told her “they were having problems with sparks,” she said. They visited her property but she said because she wasn’t there Wednesday she was not aware of their findings.

Cowley was back at the property Monday and expressed gratitude at finding most of the 65 structures on it still standing, just a few hundred feet from the crime scene where investigators worked to determine what had happened to spark the massive fire.

The former landscaper bought Pulga, an abandoned and decrepit historic gold prospecting town, in 2015 and embarked on a project that transformed it into a picturesque private destination.

She cleared overgrown brush, patched up buildings and added new ones. With Bay Area artists and architects, she re-created a town, complete with a stage and schoolhouse. And then, a year ago, she opened for business, renting out Pulga for corporate retreats.

The AP article described what happened when Crowley reached the site of her own home.

She raised her hand to her cheek and said, “It’s gone. That’s where all my stuff was, but it’s not there anymore.”

She paused and picked up a mug that somehow had survived the inferno. “It’s OK,” Cowley told herself quietly. “It’s OK.”

PG&E declined to discuss the email it sent Cowley with AP, saying it has provided an “initial electric incident report” with state regulators and will fully cooperate with any investigations.

Publicly, PG&E has said it experienced a problem on an electrical transmission line near the site of the massive fire minutes before the blaze broke out.

In its Friday filing to the state Public Utilities Commission, the company said it had detected an outage on an electrical transmission line near the site of the blaze. It said a subsequent aerial inspection detected damage to a transmission tower on the line.

The area where CalFire says the blaze started and where PG&E says sparks were detected on Cowley’s property is roughly the same, according to an AP reporter at the site.

The utility, which has been criticized and sued in a number of other large and deadly fires across California, had announced before the blaze started that it might shut down power in nine counties, including Butte County where Pulga and Paradise are, because of extreme fire danger. But, later on Thursday, PG&E said it had decided against a power cut because weather conditions did not warrant one.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, a Redwood City Democrat and longtime critic of the utility, called the report of troubles on PG&E’s lines in the area extremely worrisome.

“If PG&E is found responsible for burning down the state again, at some point we have to say enough is enough and we have to ask should this company be allowed to do business in California?” Hill said in the AP article. “These fires take (only) a spark, and at least in the last few years fires have been caused by negligent behavior by PG&E. We need to see how we can hold them responsible, or look at an alternative way of doing business.”

California utility regulators are working with CalFire staff on a separate investigation into whether PG&E complied with state rules and regulations in areas that were torched in the deadly Camp Fire.

The California Public Utilities Commission will be evaluating PG&E’s maintenance of its facilities, vegetation management and emergency preparedness and response, said commission spokeswoman Terrie Prosper.

This is not the first time PG&E’s management practices have come under question in the drought-stricken state.

In 2014, regulators ordered the state’s investor-owned utilities to set priorities for inspecting and removing dead and sick trees near their power lines, warning that “climate change has facilitated and exacerbated numerous wildfires” that have damaged and threatened their facilities.

But after a wildfire killed two people, destroyed 475 homes and scorched 70,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills the following year, homeowners and their attorneys questioned whether PG&E had done enough to clear dry trees flanking its power lines. In 2016, CalFire ultimately found PG&E was responsible for that fire, after tree maintenance by PG&E and its contractors led to a tree falling on a power line.

Investigators have determined that PG&E equipment started several of the 2017 wildfires in Northern California wine country that killed 44 people. The company says it expects to pay more than $2.5 billion in damages.

Observer Reporter Cherise Kaechele contributed to this story.