By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
A chilled forest visitor, not a careless U.S. Forest Service employee, apparently started the fire that burned parts of an old Sumpter Valley Railroad trestle last month.
Forest Service officials learned about the fire in a letter written by Kathleen Hanson of Ontario.
Hanson, who is interested in the history of the narrow-gauge railroad that operated from 1890 until 1947, was hunting on the Unity Ranger District southwest of Phillips Reservoir when she found charred remnants of the trestle.
Hanson wrote that she had seen Forest Service employees in the area, and she assumed they had burned the trestle during a prescribed fire set to clean up logging slash left from the Curran timber sale.
But Forest Service officials who investigated, including law enforcement agents, determined the trestle was outside the prescribed fire boundary, said Jean Lavell, Unity District ranger.
She said the trestle remnants were purposely excluded from the prescribed fire area to protect them.
However, Forest Service firefighters put out at least three wildfires in the area the same day Hanson found the burned trestle parts, Lavell said.
Those fires apparently were warming blazes started by forest visitors, possible hikers or hunters.
The weather at the time was cold and rainy, Lavell said so wet, in fact, that Forest Service workers had trouble setting afire piles of logging slash inside the timber sale boundary.
In her letter, Hanson also wrote that a section of old railroad grade had been demolished until it is unrecognizable.
Actually, Lavell said, heavy equipment used in the timber sale and subsequent prescribed fires was allowed to cross the grade in two places only, to minimize the effect.
She said the State Historic Preservation Office approved those crossing sites. That state agency helps coordinate efforts to protect sites, including the Railroad, that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Lavell said Forest Service employees walked through the entire Curran timber sale area and determined that none of the several other Sumpter Valley Railroad sites had been damaged.
She said she is glad the investigation cleared Forest Service employees of any wrongdoing.
Hanson, in a follow up letter to Lavell, agreed.
I am sorry for thinking that any Forest Service employees might be responsible, she wrote. You have convinced me that the Forest Service does care about the history of our little area.
Hanson also volunteered to help Forest Service officials protect railroad remnants.
Forest Service officials have identified dozens of historic sites containing artifacts from the Sumpter Valley Railroad, which during its heyday carried timber, freight and passengers between Baker City and Prairie City.
In addition to that mainline, there are hundreds of miles of spurs, including the one Hanson referred to in her letter.
Lavell said timber sales and all other projects are designed to protect Sumpter Valley Railroad artifacts.