JOHN DAY - Five Malheur National Forest employees were dispatched to Longview, Texas, on Feb. 18 to assist with Columbia Shuttle recovery efforts. Persephone Thompson and Dave Larman from Blue Mountain Ranger District along with Liz Mullin-Pope, Al Wenzel and Danny Northington from the Prairie City Ranger District will join 15 other federal employees from the Wallowa Whitman and Umatilla national forests and the Burns Bureau of Land Management.
"We are thankful that we are able to assist a community in need during such a traumatic time" said Roger Williams, Forest Supervisor. "This will be a difficult assignment but one that I know our employees will face with compassion, respect and pride."
The team will relieve local firefighters and police officers so that they might have some time away to recover from the physical and emotional exhaustion associated with this task, as well as allow them to return to their regular duties. The team is expected to return home around March 14.
Federal government employees from the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests and the Prineville BLM also were recently dispatched to assist with space shuttle Columbia recovery efforts. A 20-person crew departed from Central Oregon over the Presidents' holiday weekend. The crew reported to the Federal Emergency Management Agency Operations Center in Lufkin, Texas, to receive their field assignment.
The crew from Central Oregon will join what has become a large-scale national effort to hunt for shuttle debris concentrated in Nacogdoches, San Augustine and Sabine counties in Texas. The crews are primarily made up of federal land management employees trained to fight fires in national forests but they may also include other employees whose regular job is to work in the woods. The crews will serve as welcome replacements to the local police, firefighters and other volunteers who have worked diligently on recovery efforts since the Feb. 1 shuttle disaster.
Crew members were told to expect an assignment that could potentially add up to 30, 12-hour days. In contrast to the typical fire-resistant work clothes, boots and fire shelters needed during fire season, crews packed wet weather gear, gore-tex and fast drying boots. They were advised to bring the usual fire camp gear, including sleeping bags and tents and were warned of the possibility of encountering copperhead and cottonmouth snakes while working in the creek areas. The crew work includes gridding the search areas by walking as well as following compass lines in rough vegetation to specific locations.
"We are proud that employees from Central Oregon are stepping up to the plate to help in what has become a National effort," said Central Oregon Fire Management Staff Officer George Chesley. Time is of the essence, as visibility in the forests will decrease as spring arrives and no shuttle missions are expected until the accident cause has been determined, officials reported. There is the potential for the mobilization of up to 175, 20-person crews and five incident management teams to be dispatched from federal land management agencies to support completing the assignment.