Fatal wreck sparks range fire

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By CHRIS COLLINS

Of the Baker City Herald

A fatal two-vehicle crash on Interstate 84 about five miles southeast of Baker City sparked a fire that threatened a Sutton Creek home Wednesday night.

The crash happened at 6:05 p.m. in the eastbound freeway lanes, according to Oregon State Police.

Tiffany M. McCombs, 23, and Mark D. McCombs, 1, died at the scene. They were passengers in a 1997 Chevrolet Blazer.

The driver, Joel C. McCombs, 24, and seven-month-old Jenna McCombs, were taken by ambulance to St. Elizabeth Health Services. Police said the two were transferred to Legacy Emmanuel Hospital in Portland with burns.

The family lives at Kennewick, Wash.

Jenna McCombs was listed in serious condition today, a hospital spokeswoman said. Information about Joel McCombs was not available today.

Police said the McCombs' vehicle struck a 2001 Kenworth semi-truck and trailer from behind as the semi merged from the shoulder onto the right eastbound lane of the freeway.

The Blazer rolled onto its side and started on fire, police said.

The truck driver, Donald E. Handley, 57, of Caldwell, Idaho, was not injured.

andquot;This fatal crash is a tragedy, and has forever changed the lives of all those involved,andquot; said Lt. Reg Madsen. andquot;This is exactly the type of thing that we are out there on your freeway actively trying to prevent.andquot;

State police are continuing the investigation, Madsen said.

Wind caught flames from the vehicle fire and pushed it southeast toward Mark Dunbar's property near Sutton Creek.

Dunbar, 72, said he was sitting inside his home Wednesday night when he realized trouble was headed his way.

andquot;A big old smoke came across like a shadow, and then here came the fire,andquot; he said.

Dunbar and his significant other of 20 years, Marge Hall, 77, watched as the fire made its way toward the home where they've lived for the past several years.

Hall said she called 911 to report that the fire was blowing toward the property.

andquot;Then I called back and said, 'It's here,'andquot; she said.

The fire burned to within about 100 feet of the couple's mobile home and fifth-wheel camp trailer parked next to it. The house and other structures on the property were not damaged. Sprinkler pipe, fence posts, a stack of straw and tires on a combine burned, Hall said. The fire also destroyed a 1952 Studebaker truck and an antique wagon. Most of the fence line on the southeast side of Dunbar's 48.9 acres is down today, she said. The loss was insured.

In anticipation of a range fire, Dunbar had placed sprinkler pipe around the perimeter of a fence between his home and the freeway. The sprinklers, which he runs two to three times a week, had been turned off at 7 o'clock Wednesday morning.

andquot;I was lucky to have the sprinklers,andquot; he said. andquot;I kept saying one day that's what was going to happen. I kept this as wet as I could.andquot;

Hall moved two vehicles to Highway 30 to make room for emergency vehicles responding to the fire. She and her schnauzer dog, Tuffy, stayed with the vehicles as firefighters worked at the scene.

The Baker City Fire Department was called out first to the accident, said Fire Chief Tim Frost. Both eastbound traffic lanes were closed until 11 p.m. to allow police to investigate the accident, said Tom Stranberg, Oregon Department of Transportation information officer in La Grande.

One lane was opened to traffic at 11 p.m., and both lanes were reopened at 11:56 p.m. Highway 30 also was closed for part of that time. The freeway was closed at the Campbell Street interchange as soon as possible to allow travelers to stop at a place where services were available, he said.

More than 200 cars and trucks were backed up on the freeway at 8 p.m. and many of those travelers waited there until the highway was reopened, said Brad Payton, ODOT transportation maintenance manager in Baker City.

andquot;I didn't see or hear any complaints,andquot; Payton said. andquot;I think everybody knew the severity of what happened.andquot;

Frost said the Baker City Fire Department first sent an ambulance and an engine to the accident scene. City firefighters aided volunteers from the Haines, Baker Rural, Keating Rural, and Greater Bowen Valley Rural fire departments, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service firefighters and Oregon Department of Transportation employees poured water on the range fire.

The BLM was the lead agency on the fire, which burned in andquot;no man's land,andquot; an area not covered by a fire protection district, said Steven Hawkins, fuels technician for the Forest Service's Burnt-Powder Fire Zone. As part of Baker County's mutual aid agreement, volunteer firefighters were dispatched through the consolidated 911 dispatch center.

Two engines from the Keating Rural Fire Department responded with six firefighters. One engine blew a tire at Flagstaff Hill en route to the scene, said Fire Chief Buzz Harper.

13007362
The Baker City Herald
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