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Locals give Malheur heat over Bald Sisters

Malheur officials take heat from the public at informational meeting on the Bald Sisters Fire.

Published on September 30, 2014 1:44PM

Bald Sisters Fire

As of Sept. 24

Date started: Aug. 1

Location: 12 miles east of Prairie City

Cause: Lightning

Cost: $8.8 million

Size: 2,820 acres

Contingency line area: 18,100 acres

Fire officials face questions at meeting in PC

By Cheryl Hoefler

Blue Mountain Eagle

PRAIRIE CITY – Some unhappy local residents gave Malheur National Forest officials an earful at a public meeting about the Bald Sisters Fire last week at the Prairie City Community Center.

The fire, sparked by lightning Aug. 1, has charred over 2,800 acres to date, and gone through several levels of command, both local and national.

About 20 residents attended the Sept. 24 meeting, which was led by Karen Miranda Gleason, communication coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She and Forest Service fire officials took turns outlining the fire’s chronology, progression and management, tactics used by crews, changes in command and expected future outlook.

The presentation included computerized animation and an aerial video circumnavigating the fire, taken the night before.

Brian Bishop, fire manager for the Prairie City Ranger District, and Dave Halemeier, district ranger of the Blue Mountain District, chronicled the fire response. They said local crews were in charge until Aug. 6, when the priority was upgraded and command was transferred to a Type 1 team from Atlanta. They were joined by available Type 2 teams from other areas.

Command went down to Type 2 on Aug. 21, and, following a period of slow fire growth, was downgraded again on Aug. 24, to the local Type 3 status, where it has remained since.

Fire staff officer Roy Walker told the crowd the north zone of the Malheur National Forest – the Blue Mountain and Prairie City districts – had about 91 fires during the summer, including Bald Sisters.

Officials said the most activity seen on the fire was in the eight days just prior to the meeting, until roughly a half-inch of rain fell on Sept. 22.

“That rain slowed this thing down a lot,” said Walker.

Officials also took questions from the audience.

Asked how much money had been spent to date on the fire, the staff said approximately $8.8 million, as of Sept. 24.

One resident asked how the Forest Service could justify spending that much taxpayer money. Officials said a large part of the cost was due to equipment and personnel needed to put in 30 miles of line around the fire area – over 18,100 acres.

Some also questioned the time and cost to build fire line that wasn’t needed, particularly on the north boundary of the fire area. Fire officials noted that decisions made in the fire’s early stages were based on anticipated weather patterns, which changed after the line was put in.

Bishop stressed that three major obstacles crews faced with Bald Sisters – heavy fuels, steep terrain and the fire’s behavior to that point.

Gleason said the decisions made were “the best thing they could come up with at the time.”

Many felt the fire should have been out early on, contending it shouldn’t have grown as big as it did and that it shouldn’t have gone past Reynolds Creek.

When one fire official reminded everyone that they didn’t start the fire, one person called out, “You didn’t stop it either.”

Forest officials said safety was a big concern, but they also were up against a shortage of resources due to the large amount of fire activity across Oregon and the West. One person complained that Grayback Forestry was called off the fire the first day, while another said fire-fighting helicopters were ready at Grant County Regional Airport in the initial days, but weren’t called.

The fire officials said only so much aircraft that can be put on a fire at one time.

Residents also voiced concern about post-fire plans for the downed timber and restoration of the burned area.

Officials said it was still early, but the plans would include timber salvage and re-seeding. They said crews already have rebuilt a considerable stretch of fence line. Bishop also said only about 20 percent or less of the burned areas are classified at “severe burn” levels.

On the subject of air quality, Gleason said Bald Sisters had only impacted the area for 10 days during the period since its Aug. 1 started. Dana Skelly, long-term fire analyst, said much of the smoke here was actually drifting in from fires outside the area, in southern Oregon and even northern California.

Bishop summed up with a reminder that a major concern is always the risk and exposure to the firefighters, all of whom are a family member to someone.

“I’ll be damned if I’m gonna hurt any of them,” Bishop said.

For updates on the Bald Sisters Fire, visit http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/.

Public use restrictions, area closures and fire information is also available at the Blue Mountain Ranger District, 541-575-3000, and the Prairie City Ranger District, 541-820-3800.


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