Boy OK after tree crushes camper

October 01, 2002 12:00 am
A rotten portion of a ponderosa pine smashed Jamie Conant's travel trailer at his campsite along the North Fork Burnt River. His son, Christopher, was in the trailer at the time but was not injured. (Submitted photograph).
A rotten portion of a ponderosa pine smashed Jamie Conant's travel trailer at his campsite along the North Fork Burnt River. His son, Christopher, was in the trailer at the time but was not injured. (Submitted photograph).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Jamie Conant never even noticed the dead ponderosa pine until its top snapped off and smashed the trailer in which his 4-year-old son was sitting.

Conant's son, Christopher, was not hurt in the incident Friday afternoon at a campsite along the North Fork Burnt River about five miles south of Whitney.

But the boy, whom Conant said was about six feet from the spot where the tree top struck the trailer, was scared.

"He was shaking — white as a ghost," said Conant, who lives in Ontario and drove to the area to hunt deer.

"I was too."

The trailer, a 1979 model 35-footer, was a total loss, he said.

Conant said his tow rig, a 1993 Dodge Dakota pickup truck, sustained a few dents and scratches.

The tree also ruined his deer-hunting rifle, a Remington 30-06 that was packed in its case inside the trailer. The impact bent the rifle's barrel and shattered its scope, Conant said.

There was no other damage, he said.

Conant said he arrived at the campsite Wednesday, in advance of Saturday's opening of the buck deer season.

When he camped at the same spot last year, gusty winds snapped off several limbs, and Conant said he looked around the area when he arrived this year to make sure he didn't park either his truck or trailer beneath any weak-looking limbs.

His hunting partner, who also hauled a trailer, did the same.

"But we didn't expect a tree to fall on us," Conant said.

He described conditions Friday afternoon as "breezy," with the strongest gust about 20 mph.

Conant said both he and his son were starting to step out of the trailer when his friend, who was camping at the same site and cleaning fish, heard a crack.

"He yelled ‘run,' " Conant said. "I made it out of the trailer. My son didn't."

Conant said the top 35 to 40 feet of the ponderosa pine broke off.

He said the tree appeared to have been long dead.

"It was rotten," he said. "There was about two or three inches of solid wood, and the rest was just powder."

Conant said that after the dust had cleared, he drove to the Forest Service's Unity Ranger Station to report the fallen tree.

He said a Forest Service employee drove to the campsite and wrapped bright-colored tape around one other tree in the area.

Later, a logger felled the ponderosa whose top fell on Conant's trailer.

Logger not surprised

Although the tree's sudden smashing appearance shocked Conant, it was no real surprise for Donald Moody of Baker City.

Moody, a logger who has bought several timber sales that consisted of so-called "hazard" trees that lean over forest roads, said he has noticed many such trees along the North Fork Burnt River Road over the past few years.

On Friday morning Moody and his wife, Dana, drove past Conant's campsite on their way to a relative's grazing allotment, where they rounded up cattle.

Donald Moody brought his digital camera along, intending to photograph trees at the campsite he had noticed before and thought posed a danger to people staying there.

When the Moodys drove past the site that afternoon, the tree had already snapped.

He snapped a few photos, and introduced himself to Conant.

Donald Moody said he has discussed the hazard trees along the North Fork Road with Forest Service employees, and is disappointed that none of the trees has been cut or even marked as a potential danger.

He admits he has a financial interest in the matter — he could make money cutting those trees.

But Moody said it was safety, not economics, that convinced him to carry his digital camera Friday.

"I am concerned with the safety part, and I'm also concerned with the local economy," he said. "I think it goes hand in hand."

Moody said he thinks the Forest Service should act more aggressively in cutting dangerous trees — especially in campsites.

"If they see something that's an obvious hazard there should be no second-guessing," he said.

John Denne, public affairs officer for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, said the Forest Service cuts all hazard trees in developed campgrounds each season before the areas are open to the public.

The sites along the North Fork Road are not developed campgrounds, however, but what the Forest Service calls "dispersed sites," he said.

There is an outhouse at the site where Conant camped, Denne said, but no other structures or Forest Service developments.

Dan Ermovick, recreation officer for the Wallowa-Whitman, said the forest does not typically survey dispersed campsites for hazard trees every year as it does development campgrounds. There are thousands of dispersed sites on the Wallowa-Whitman, he said.

Denne said Forest Service employees were scheduled to cut hazard trees in the North Fork Burnt River area today.

"We do consider public safety a priority," he said. "We feel badly it happened (to Conant), and we feel fortunate no one was hurt.

"That's our primary concern."

Unity District employees referred questions about hazard trees along the North Fork road to Ranger Jean Lavell.

Acting Ranger Bob Crisler said Lavell would not be available to comment until this afternoon.

Donald Moody said he has counted about 100 trees along the North Fork Road that he thinks pose imminent hazards to travelers and campers.

He said most have been dead so long that they have little or no value as timber.

However, Moody said about a dozen trees that died more recently might be worth enough to at least pay the cost to cut all the others.

Like Moody, Conant said he thinks the Forest Service has been negligent.

"I think there should be a marker or a sign or something (on hazardous trees)," he said. "Either that or the Forest Service needs to get in there and cut them down."

Conant said he remained at his campsite, smashed trailer and all, both Saturday and Sunday nights. He said he considered moving, but that all nearby places were already occupied.

His otherwise dismal weekend at least ended well, however.

He got his buck.