Firefighters bring comfort to wary Greenhorn residents

Written by Chris Collins August 23, 2013 10:22 am

By Chris Collins

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Joyce Pappel wasn’t worried as she sat on the porch of her Greenhorn home Tuesday afternoon while the Vinegar Fire burned about a mile away.

The quiet that usually prevails — and welcomes bears, cougars and other wildlife — has been replaced by different sounds since Aug. 14. 

 That’s when a lightning strike ignited the blaze that by today had moved through 1,161 acres of subalpine fire and lodgepole pine. The fire is burning in the Greenhorn Unit of the North Fork John Day Wilderness Area. Heavy rain helped douse the fire Thursday.

 

For the past week, Papple, 69, and Ron Bergstrom, 66, have experienced a noisier kind of peace. 

The couple, who are Greenhorn’s only year-round residents, have found comfort in the whir of helicopters flying overhead and fire crews traveling up and down the gravel road through Oregon’s smallest incorporated city.

“I feel that they’ve got a lot of personnel up here now and a lot of equipment and we’ve seen the work you can’t see and I feel comfortable,” Pappel said.

BLM and Forest Service crews rotate through night patrols in the town, which has remained at a Level 1 evacuation notice through the week. Level 1 urges residents to be prepared to leave if necessary.

Greenhorn, with an elevation of  6,306 feet above sea level, also is Oregon’s highest town, proclaims a sign in the middle of the city.

Pappel and Bergstrom’s home at 100 Phoenix St. is equipped with concrete siding and the couple has cleared the area around their property of underbrush and other fuel sources.

“We’re in pretty good shape,” Pappel said.

This isn’t the first fire they’ve experienced in their 13 years at Greenhorn.

“We’ve had some, but never any this big or this close,” Pappel said.

There are about 13 cabins in the community.

Greenhorn’s other 20 or so residents are part-timers who visit their mountain homes as often as their schedules allow.

On Tuesday, part-time residents who had traveled across the state to 

check the fire’s status for themselves included Randy Hartman and Dennis and Phyllis Koellermeier, all of West Linn, and their son, Zack Koellermeier, who lives at Oregon City. Zack Koellermeier and Pappel serve on the City of Greenhorn’s City Council with three others: Mayor Dale McLouth of Mollala, Nathan Wright of La Grande and Brad Poyser of Oregon City.

Dennis Koellermeier said he and his family have offered guidance to fire crews traveling through Greenhorn.

“I feel a bit like a tour guide, but if it helps at all, I’m happy to do it,” he said.

Koellermeier jumped on his four-wheeler Tuesday during a media tour of the area to take photographers to a vantage point where helicopters could be seen dropping 200-gallon buckloads of the foam product Thermo Gel and water on the fire.

“They’re playing our music,” Steve Simmons, vice president of Thermo Technologies at Bismarck, N.D., said earlier in the day as a helicopter arrived at the gel plant site near Greenhorn to fill its bucket for another flight.

Jess Pitt of Klamath Falls and his three-man crew provided two huge tanks for dispensing the foam substance and a smaller tank for rinsing the equipment.

The Klamath Falls group also pumped water from a

nearby pond into holding

tanks used for mixing with the Thermo Gel and to fill trucks spraying water on the gravel roads.

More than 550 firefighters, including Forest Service and Oregon Department of Forestry employees from throughout the region, a crew of Vale Hot Shots, 10 prisoners from the Powder River Correctional Facility and firefighters from as far away as Georgia and Alabama have taken over Crane Flat north of Granite where a small city has been established.

Most of the firefighters are camped in tents on the flat. Twenty-seven portable toilets provided by Baker Sanitary Service are scattered around the camp, hot showers are available in trailers and a caterer supplies workers with three meals a day.

“We’re trying to make it as comfortable for the firefighters as possible,” said retired Forest Service fleet manager Dusty Rhoads of Citrus Heights, Calif., who coordinates logistics. 

He’s part of a 50-person overhead team that plans each day’s activities from a circle of trailers serving as offices at the command base.

The total cost of the firefighting effort had reached $2,847,820 as of 9 p.m. Wednesday, said Anne Maloney, public information officer, an Oregon Department of Forestry employee from Klamath Falls.

As always, safety of the firefighters, other workers and the public is the top priority, said Brian J. Watts, incident commander from the Vale office of the Bureau of Land Management.

“There have been no significant injuries to date,” he said Tuesday. 

There had been just one accident at that point, Maloney said. Unfortunately, she was involved as the driver of a Jeep SUV that collided with a deer. The crash left a scratch on the vehicle’s bumper, but bruised only Maloney’s ego.

Roads and areas near the fire, including Olive Lake, remain closed as the opening of archery season approaches this weekend. More information is available by calling Vinegar Fire Information at 541-755-9003. A detailed area closure description and map are available at Forest Service offices and on the Web at inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/3645/.