The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Andrew Christiansen
Reporter 

So what really went wrong with the fire?

In the midst of a new fire season and a year after the Mile Marker 28 fire, questions remain unanswered about how it started, even after a thick report DNR calls final

 

Andrew Christiansen

FIRE IN THE GORGE: The Rowena fire's heavy smoke is visible from the north side of the Columbia River near Lyle looking south. Another fire tore across areas of SR 14 last week. This year's fires are reminders of last year's inferno, the Mile Marker 28 fire.

In the first few hours of the Mile Marker 28 fire of last summer, a lot of people around Goldendale were asking how the fire started and how did it get so far out of hand. Anyone who has driven SR 97 before the fire and now has to be dismayed by the magnitude of the ecological damage it caused. Devastation of this type in a semiarid location will take decades to overcome.

Last month a proclamation was issued by the Department of Natural Resources, claiming that their investigation proved that the fire was started by electric arcing between Klickitat PUD power lines and a Grand Fir tree that was allowed to grow too large and too close to the lines. Included with their investigation was a bill for $2,023,799.25 issued by the Washington State Attorney General on behalf of the DNR.

The findings and bill came as a shock to the KPUD, and while the investigative report is full of detail, interviews, and photos, there are many pieces of information that are conspicuous by their absence.

The DNR investigation focused on a tree that caught fire and was reportedly seen sparking between the branches and a power line. It was the second such tree to catch fire on that morning. The first one was extinguished and cut down. The second one is said to have started the fire that got out of control and burned 26,078 acres of habitat and timber.

Four members of an eight-member crew from Tee Pee Creek Logging Company, out of Glenwood, were interviewed along with several employees of the Bureau of Indian Affairs who were either in the area monitoring timber sales or were responding to fight the fire. Their accounts pointed to the tree and power line as the source of the fire. The report then lays out a forensic investigation that apparently supports the claim of the loggers who were working in the area when the fire started. DNR tallied the expenses for their agency and others and submitted the bill. The report did not state an opinion about how the tree and wires made contact, and it did not draw any conclusions about what transpired during the first four hours of the fire when it grew from a few square feet to 20 acres, although a selective group of interviews were presented that give a general picture of the events.

Most people are aware that the fire started at mile marker 28, on the east side of SR 97 and that it consumed forest land from the top of Satus Pass to the bottom, taking 12 days before it was finally contained and hot spots allowed to burn out. Details about those first few hours draw a clearer picture of what transpired.

Witness reports of the exact time that the first tree caught fire varies somewhat, as they are based on recollection of witnesses who were busy logging. The following timeline is based on the DNR investigation and records of dispatch calls from the Klickitat County Emergency Management Department.

The Tee Pee Creek Logging Company was working along the east side of SR97 on the morning of July 24 when a truck driver alerted them to smoke, sometime around 9 a.m., according to the statements of Anthony Aranda and Corey Patterson, of Tee Pee Creek Logging. Logging crew member, Darrell Leslie stated he was also told of smoke by a truck driver and he grabbed an extinguisher and shovel and went to the site. He could see fire no more than 25 feet up in the tree. He climbed the tree and fired his extinguisher. He immediately felt an electric shock that knocked him out of the tree. His supervisor and company owner, Shane Patterson heard about the fire and arrived to see Leslie knocked out of the tree. Patterson used a feller-buncher to cut down the tree and pull it away from the location. He says he pulled it straight out while holding it erect, and laid it down away from the fire that started on the ground. Other crew members arrived and the fire was put out. Once Leslie was determined to be okay, the men went back to work.

Estimates suggest that a half hour later, sometime around 10:30 a.m., another truck driver reported seeing smoke south of the location of the first tree. The crew responded and found another fir tree on fire, this time further up in the tree and they could see arcing between the tree and wires. Patterson says the limbs were bouncing and hitting the wire, as opposed to wires swaying and hitting the tree. Attempts to extinguish the fire were unsuccessful and Patterson called the BIA fire department. That second tree would be identified as the source of the major fire. It was located within a "no-cut" riparian area along Shinando Creek, as was the first tree, according to the DNR report.

At 10:51, Goldendale residents Russ and Colleen Richmond were northbound on SR97 and called 911 after noticing a small fire. That call went to the dispatch in Goldendale who then notified the BIA fire department, since it was within their jurisdiction.

Just before 11 a.m. the BIA sent two trucks from Toppenish, along with the Yakama Nation Fire Management officer, Don Jones, citing the call from Patterson. They had other resources committed to a fire near Wapato at the time.

Chad James of the DNR, working out of the Goldendale office, learned of the fire at 11:15 a.m. while working on a fire in the Swale Canyon area. At 11:39 a.m., James ordered a helicopter to the fire scene, along with a fire crew from Goldendale.

The logging crew initially tried to fight the fire, cutting a line around the fire with their bulldozer, but they were limited in how close they could get due to a deep cut in the area, according to Shane Patterson. Jones checked on the logging crew's certification to help fight the fire while traveling to the fire, and determined that they were not currently certified to help.

Jones arrived around 11:15 a.m. and the two BIA fire trucks arrived around 11:30 a.m. Jones estimated the fire covered about 1 acre. According to Jones, "Mr. Patterson did offer to help suppress the fire. I then asked him 'did you start it?' and he said 'no.' Then I said you are not signed up with us under the Emergency Equipment Rental Agreement, so I can't ask you to do that." Jones said Patterson assisted by removing as much felled timber as they could until the time came when Jones had to ask him to leave due to safety reasons.

The decision about whether or not the logging crew would help fight the fire was apparently unclear. Patterson told The Sentinel that they wanted to fight the fire and he thought they could have put it out had they been allowed to continue. Patterson said they were going to bulldoze a road to get closer to the fire with a water truck. He said everyone told them to "get out of there." Patterson admits at least one person on the scene told him he could help. Another individual with the BIA said there were a lot of people talking who shouldn't have been and it led to the confusion.

Rural 7 Chief Anthony Browning heard about the fire and arrived to investigate at 11:56 a.m. His notes say it was a small fire and he felt they had enough people to handle it. He was surprised to see the logging crew standing and watching. He talked to some of the loggers and says he was told that they were cutting a tree and that the tree and a machine contacted the wires and caused the fire. Browning called for a water truck, which arrived at 1 p.m.

James arrived at the fire at 12:31 p.m. He met with Jones who requested the DNR Ahtanum handcrew and another crew from Goldendale. James called for the Goldendale crew but told Jones the tribe would have to make the request for the Ahnatum crew. James then started to work on the east side of the fire, but determined the position was too dangerous without an outlet and he joined the fight on the west side of the fire. The fire was also growing on the west and at 2:20 p.m. the decision was made to fall back and re-evaluate their strategy. They concluded that a direct attack could not be accomplished with the resources they had on the scene. While in the fallback position, the fire jumped SR97 and began to spread north. Around 3 p.m. James ordered Husum and more Goldendale units to the fire. He also contacted Browning to let him know that the fire was moving toward his district. Seven minutes later James concluded it was too dangerous to engage the fire on the ground.

Four Rural 7 trucks were ordered into action at 3:54 p.m., arriving between 4:17 p.m. and 5:05 p.m. Another vehicle was called for and arrived at 5:44 p.m. By the time the first Rural 7 trucks were on scene, the fire had grown to about 400 acres, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Estimates of the size of the fire grew from about ½ acre at 10:30 a.m. to 2 acres at 12:18 p.m. and 20 acres at 2:27 p.m. By all accounts, the weather was hot and dry with winds ranging from 2 mph to 5 mph from 10:45 a.m. to noon, with gusts around 10 mph.

The Klickitat PUD had 30 days to respond to the billing, according to Michael Rollinger of the State Attorney General's office, who is involved by request from DNR, which Rollinger says is usual on matters over $50,000. Rollinger said there is typically one of three actions taken in cases like this. One is for the respondent to accept the finding and pay the bill. Another is for them to deny responsibility and refuse to pay. If that occurs, DNR could take no action or try for resolution or take the issue to court. The third option is to look for a negotiated settlement for reduction of the level of responsibility. It would again be up to the DNR to decide how to respond.

KPUD chose a fourth option with a request from their attorney, Daniel Short, with Paine Hamblen. Short asked for more information associated with the DNR investigative report, including better photos, more detail in billing, and any other interviews not included in the report and information about interagency fire suppression agreements. In their question on the billing, they also asked for explanation of cost share agreements, citing a billed item from the BIA for $584,652.

KPUD disputes the conclusions in the DNR report, according to Ron Ihrig, KPUD Chief Operating Officer. Upon receiving the DNR report, Ihrig focused on "an unauthorized logging company doing work in the area without informing the KPUD." Ihrig would not comment on the KPUD theory of what started the fire or whether they were responsible for trees being too close to wires.

It does not look like the matter of the bill will be settled any time soon. It's clear nobody wanted the fire and the initial responders arrived quickly and did all they could to try and contain it. There remain questions about how long it took to bring Rural 7 to the fight. A fire last week on Box Canyon Road had a different response. It occurred on DNR protected land, outside Rural 7 area, according to James. The initial attack included DNR, Rural 7, and Bickleton Fire Departments. In addition, units from Appleton, Wahkiakus, Lyle and White Salmon were called in. The fire was held to 40 acres.

James said he could not speak about the Mile Marker 28 fire, but did explain that mutual aid agreements do exist between DNR and other departments, but only apply to DNR land within a department's protection area. For example, last week's fire on Old Stage Road included DNR protected land within Rural 7 and was fought jointly with each covering their own expenses. The Box Canyon Road, being outside the Rural 7, required DNR to "hire" the other fire departments to assist.

The BIA does not have a mutual aid agreement with Rural 7, but they do have agreements with DNR. Whether that was a factor in decisions relative to the Mile Marker 28 fire is unknown. However, perhaps a positive outcome of the fire is that Browning says he has been working with BIA to work out a memorandum of understanding.

 

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