Wildfire is county's biggest in a decade

July 16, 2002 12:00 am
The U.S. Forest Service has closed the East Camp Creek Road to Eldorado Campground (above) and other roads in the vicinity of the Monument fire for the protection of the public. (Baker City Herald/Jayson Jacoby).
The U.S. Forest Service has closed the East Camp Creek Road to Eldorado Campground (above) and other roads in the vicinity of the Monument fire for the protection of the public. (Baker City Herald/Jayson Jacoby).


Of the Baker City Herald

UNITY — Joe Stutler has a plan to fight Baker County's biggest fire in 13 years.

What he doesn't have are firefighters.

Or at least not in numbers sufficient to take on the 17,300-acre Monument fire about nine miles south of Unity.

Since it was sparked by lightning Friday afternoon, the fire has burned more acres than any other blaze in the county since the 20,000-acre Dooley Mountain fire in late July and early August of 1989.

Cooler temperatures and higher humidites have prevented the blaze from growing much since it consumed about 17,000 acres in several hours Saturday afternoon.

Stutler, whose 50-member overhead team arrived in Unity Sunday afternoon to set up camp at the Unity School, said about 138 people were assigned to the Monument fire today.

He's asking for 1,000.

But because there are several other large fires burning in Oregon, most of which pose a greater threat to homes and people than does Stutler's fire, he doesn't expect to see those battalions for at least a few days.

And he might never receive every person, bulldozer, air tanker or helicopter he requests.

"If this was the only fire in town, we could have 1,000 people here in 24 hours, easy," Stutler said.

By town Stutler means not just Unity, but all of Oregon and Washington.

And of the 13 big blazes burning in those states, he said Monument ranks 9th in the pecking order for firefighters and their machines.

This is to be expected, he said, considering most of the country's cadre of firefighters already were busy even before lightning storms sparked 504 new blazes across the country Saturday and Sunday.

Nor can the U.S. Forest Service, which Stutler works for, or other federal or state agencies afford to assign all their resources to large fires such as Monument.

Stutler said the agencies also have to hold in reserve plenty of firefighters for the new blazes that inevitably pop up when lightning touches down across the drought-stricken West.

Officials also can train military personnel to fight wildfires, Stutler said, an option the federal government has employed before and is considering right now.

This is Stutler's 35th fire season, so he accepts with practiced equanimity the difference between what he needs and what his and other agencies can spare.

But understanding that reality doesn't make his predicament any less frustrating.

Had ample firefighting crews been available Sunday and Monday, Stutler said they could have put his plans to good effect.

"There's no question we could have made progress if we had some people," he said. "How much progress is impossible to say.

"They could have built five miles of line and lost it all (to the fire). Or they could have built 10 miles and held it all."

So far, though, the Monument fire has jumped every one of the short sections of line firefighters have managed to carve, Stutler said.

And until there are control lines in place, Stutler said the blaze has free reign to replicate the rapid advance it made Saturday afternoon.

At that time the fire took advantage of a nasty recipe of 100-degree heat, single-digit humidity and wind to scorch about 17,000 acres.

Most of that area contained stands of pine and fir, Stutler said.

"If we don't get lines around it it will make another substantial run, no doubt about it," he said.

Stutler said the Monument fire was born when two smaller blazes grew together, probably on Friday.

Those were two of 16 fires in the Unity area sparked by Friday's lightning storm, he said.

Before firefighters could stop the combined fire Saturday, it had started its 17,000-acre romp through the south half of the Monument Rock Wilderness, Stutler said.

By then nothing could stop the blaze, and it was much too dangerous to place firefighters in its way.

"They simply weren't able to get close to the fire," Stutler said.

Although the Monument fire is not threatening Unity, it has the potential to endanger several structures on private property north of the fire's current boundary, Stutler said.

The Orion mine, an active lode operation, also is at risk, he said, and fire crews have provided mine owner Carlon McBroom with fire-retarding foam for McBroom's fire truck.

The Monument fire also poses a potential hazard for redband trout and for bull trout, a threatened species that lives in the North Fork of the Malheur River, the Little Malheur River, and Lost Creek.

Stutler said air tanker pilots will avoid dropping fire retardant within 300 feet of any of those streams.

Even in its fledgling stage Monday, the Monument fire camp had nearly doubled Unity's population of about 135.

Stutler said fire officials will meet with Unity residents every afternoon at 5 p.m. at the school to brief residents about progress on the fire, and to answer their questions.

A member of his team also has established a web site for the fire.

The address is: www.pnw-Team3.com/monumentfire.com.