PRAIRIE CITY - Tents came down, crews turned in their final time cards and Summit Prairie returned to a more settled state this month.
As Grant County's early and intense fire season progressed, Summit Prairie fire camp dwindled from a peak population of about 1,700 personnel to about 600 people by Aug. 7. By Aug. 17, only 407 personnel were assigned to the Monument-Malheur Complex.
Life carried on this fire season. The intense, bustling burst of firefighting activity in early July ratcheted down to a control-and-rehabilitation mode by mid-August. The scene on the Malheur National Forest quietly changed from high-intensity line building and firefighting to cautious, thorough line reinforcement and monitoring.
"As the fires get more and more controlled, we cut people loose to go home and rest or go to the next assignment," explained Jimmye Turner, public information officer for the Blue Mountain Team during an Aug. 7 tour of the Summit Prairie fire camp.
The Forest Service has estimated the total acreage for fires within the Monument-Malheur Complex at 44,062 acres. (More accurate mapping has caused these figures to fluctuate in recent days.) Estimated cost to battle these fires is expected to exceed $5.8 million.
Turner, who this summer is completing his second year of a three-year "hitch" with the Blue Mountain Team, foresaw yet another transfer as other duties beckoned.
"I always say it's kind of a gypsy lifestyle," he said of migratory camp life. "Either you like it or you don't. Either you can stand it or you can't."
Turner initially directed information dispersal for the Malheur Complex. That was in early July, when the fire camp's staging grounds were at Prairie City High School. In the early days of Grant County's explosive fire season, firefighters experienced sweltering heat - mercury reached 110 degrees in John Day on July 11. Low humidity, gusty afternoon winds and scarce firefighting resources prompted forecasters to wonder if the Monument Fire near Unity might consume 100,000 acres - it didn't; by mid-August, aided by milder weather, firefighters reported that the Monument fire was 95 percent contained after burning 24,667 acres. In early July, the High Lake and Roberts Creek fires had not yet merged - by mid-August, the blaze called High Roberts had consumed 13,535 acres before reaching 100 percent containment. In early July, the Easy Creek fire near Dixie Summit was flaring and threatening to march - by mid-August, Easy Creek had scorched 5,692 acres before gradually yielding to fire lines.
During the onset of these fire complexes, Turner worked two weeks on the Malheur Complex. Then he received a mandatory break before assuming similar information officer duties on the Monument Fire near Unity. After another mandatory break, Turner returned to the Malheur Complex. At Summit Prairie, a high-complexity type 1 team from California handed over duties to the Blue Mountain Team. Since then, the Blue Mountain Team has given way to the Swopes Team from Montana, which assumed control of the complex on Tuesday, Aug. 13. The gypsy life continues for camp personnel.
Turner predicted that workers would continue to patrol fires, possibly into the fall. Meanwhile, more and more resources will transfer to other, higher priority fires, such as the Biscuit Fire 26 miles southwest of Grants Pass on the California-Oregon border, which has burned more than 390,276 acres.
For more information on road closures and other use restrictions, the public should call the Malheur National Forest supervisor's office at 575-3000, from 7:15 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.
Even as full containment is reached on each of the fires, smoke and some fire activity may be visible for several weeks, the Forest Service cautioned.
Further information on the Flagtail-Malheur Complex can be obtained by calling the Summit Prairie Incident Command Post at (505) 768-6916 or by checking the Malheur National Forest Web site at www.fs.fed.us/r6/malheur.