Susan Parrish
The La Grande Observer

Officials keep eye on potential thunderstorms, wind that could impact fire

The Bear Butte Fire at Anthony Lakes Recreation Area has consumed 499 acres and was 55 percent contained as of Thursday morning, according to fire officials. An infrared flight gathered that information Wednesday night.

With the fire containment increased to more than 50 percent, three Type 1 hot shot crews and some aircraft were reassigned to new large fires in the region Thursday morning.

“We were the highest priority fire in the Pacific Northwest earlier in the week,” said Marty Christensen, information officer at the incident command post.

The Bear Butte Fire had dropped to No. 6 in the region on Thursday, Christensen said.

A crew from Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative successfully repaired power lines adjacent to Highway 73 (Anthony Lakes Highway) on Wednesday, restoring power to Anthony Lakes Resort Area and homes in the vicinity.

Fire crews, including a National Weather Service meteorologist at the site, are predicting a change in the weather that may affect the fire. Low pressure off the northern California coast will approach land and send moisture across Oregon from the southwest to the northeast. There is a chance of thunderstorms over high ridges Friday and Saturday, which could result in sudden changes of wind direction and fire behavior. Winds have the potential to increase significantly after thunderstorms Saturday and into Sunday, adding further complexity to fire management.

Fire managers are anticipating these potential changes and are coordinating preparation of responses locally and regionally with the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Department of Forestry and other agencies.

Closures ordered by the Forest Service on Aug. 5 remain in place as do evacuation orders for Anthony Lakes Recreation Area and adjacent homes issued by Union and Baker county sheriff offices.

— Susan Parrish, For The Observer

NORTH POWDER — Just six months ago, the meadow at the Elkhorn Wildlife Area was blanketed in deep snow, with large herds of elk gathering in the meadow to be fed.

No elk were in sight Thursday. Instead, the meadow below the road burgeoned with hundreds of tents and specialized trailers for meals, showers, transportation, supplies, first aid and printing capabilities to support the firefighters battling the Bear Butte Fire, about 12 miles south of the wildlife area. Fire crews, support personnel and supplies started arriving within 24 hours of the fire being reported on Aug. 4.

“It’s an instant city that was erected in 24 hours,” said Marty Christensen, information officer at the post.

By Thursday, the station housed 511 people. That’s larger than the nearest town, North Powder, which has about 450 residents.

The basic needs of the firefighters and support personnel are met at the station. Banks of portable toilets are lined up in several places around the camp, and trailers of handwashing stations are set up next to the toilets.

Two trailers — each containing 10 portable showers — were supplied by contractors Duane and Peggy Burden, who own AAA Mobile Solutions in Visalia, California. They also own laundromat trailers and water tenders. The Burdens have been doing this work since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. On Thursday, they were packing up their personal gear and heading to the Cinder Butte Fire in Central Oregon, but their employees will remain to manage the showers at the Bear Butte Fire command post.

In the transportation tent, Kevin Reilly, ground support unit leader, schedules eight drivers from Baker City,
La Grande and Pendleton supporting the firefighting effort. He manages a fuel tender, a large truck that holds 1,000 gallons of gas and 1,000 gallons of diesel, and keeps the vehicles fueled up.

Supporting 500 people in a firefighting operation takes a mountain of supplies. Sleeping mats, pumps, shovels and many other supplies have been organized on pallets in a field. Mike Montgomery, receiving and distribution manager, fills supply requests and the transportation team delivers supplies to the fire line.

Like most of the crew working at the fire support area, Montgomery is a government employee who is available during fire season. An engineer for the Forest Service in John Day, he is part of Northwest Team 9. Most of the team is from Northeast Oregon.

Montgomery explained that the supplies came from the Forest Service fire cache in La Grande, where warehouses of goods are stored in preparation for wildland firefighting. Other caches in the West are in Redmond, Boise, Idaho, and Salt Lake City, Utah.

This firefighting operation requires supplies including 150 tables, 250 chairs, 20 pumps, a 1,500-gallon water tank and three sizes of hoses and fittings. There are boxes of shovels, pulaskis and fire chaps for firefighters to protect their legs from chainsaws.

See complete story in Friday's Observer