WHITNEY - James Conant and his 4-year-old son, Christopher, looked forward to trying out their new 32-foot Terry-brand camp trailer when they embarked on a fall hunting trip last month. Conant towed the trailer onto the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest southwest of Baker City and stopped about 5 miles south of Whitney at a dispersed recreation site. He and his son set up camp at an outhouse- and firepit-equipped Forest Service campground, located between Whitney and Hereford. It was the same campground that they had used the year before.
This might be the last time they camp there. At about 2:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 27, both James and Christopher were in their camper, getting ready to hunt, when they heard screaming. It was James' hunting partner.
"He started yelling at us, 'Run, run, run,'" Conant recalled. "We didn't know what was going on. I got out of the trailer. My son didn't, but he was in the back of the camper, thank God."
With wind gusting about 20 miles per hour, a massive lodgepole pine snapped at the top, and a section of trunk came crashing down, landing on the camper.
"The entire front of the trailer was smashed; the roof was gone," Conant said.
Nobody was hurt, but the snapped tree devastated a camp trailer that Conant said would cost $3,500-$5,000 to replace.
"We just barely bought it a month and a half, two months ago. This was our second trip with it," he said.
The camper, being new, hadn't been insured yet, either.
"I was just barely getting the title work and everything done," Conant said.
Because Conant bought the trailer for less than its replacement value, he said he hopes to repair it if possible. In addition to crushing the trailer, the falling snag caused about $1,200 worth of damage to his pickup and smashed a hunting rifle valued at $350, Conant said. He has asked the Forest Service to consider helping him pay for damages.
Conant and his son had noticed the tree standing about 100 feet from their campsite, but they had not considered it a threat.
"We noticed it. We noticed that it was dead. There wasn't anything growing or any signs of growth. We didn't expect it to break off and fall," Conant said.
The tree, or what was left of it, was removed after its top destroyed Conant's camper.
Conant recounted what happened after he recovered from the shock.
Conant said he jumped in a truck with his son and drove south to the Unity Ranger Station. The Forest Service receptionist tried to find somebody to help them, but the office was almost empty. Finally, they located a logger by calling down to a local bar and asking for help. The logger, who was not a Forest Service employee but acted under the agency's authority, returned to the campground and downed the rest of the tree.
"When the Forest Service came up, we pointed out three other trees in the campground we were in. They taped them," Conant said.
Unity District Acting Ranger Bob Crisler confirmed that one other hazard tree had been removed from the dispersed recreation site as of Oct. 3. He added that the Forest Service will review the North Fork Burnt River area for other potential hazards.
"We don't ignore hazards. We deal with them as we become aware of them," Crisler said.
But he added, "There are so many acres of forest, and so many roads, and so many dispersed campsites, that we honestly try to deal with those sites that have higher uses."
Examples of higher-use, more developed campgrounds are the Yellow Pine, Whitmore and Oregon campgrounds along Highway 26.
Crisler noted that the Forest Service operates with limited personnel and budgets on forests with billions of trees.
"Any tree on the forest is a potential hazard. There are so many hazard trees and potential hazard trees on the forest that you have to take them by priority," he said.
Conant, however, was surprised that a dead tree could be left in a campsite.
"I didn't expect a tree to fall on us when we were in the middle of a campground. I figured the Forest Service would try to keep them out of there," he said of snags.
Conant, a corrections officer for Snake River Correctional Institution north of Ontario, said he shared his story because he just wanted to draw attention to his experience and make sure nobody ended up being hurt or killed by falling snags.
"I just want to make the public aware that we have that hazard up there in those campgrounds," he said.