MONUMENT - Some rural residents have complained that the Umatilla National Forest's initial response to the lightning-caused Monument Complex fire was too slow.
The fires that grew to form the Monument Complex started the night of July 13 and exploded over the next two days. By the night of July 15, the fire had easily doubled in size in the forest and ranch land northeast of Monument.
"I'm disappointed in the lack of response from the U.S. Forest Service," said Roy Peterson, an area resident who also is Monument's fire chief. "It boils down to a lack of management of their resources."
He and other residents say that if it hadn't been for the efforts of local citizens, the fire would have gotten much worse, and more structures would have been lost.
Among other complaints, the residents said they offered private Caterpillar equipment to fight the fire but the fire crews didn't use it. Delays in fighting the blaze allowed the conditions to worsen, the neighbors said.
"We had plenty of local Cats here, but they (the Forest Service) aren't using them," said resident Jeanne Strange.
"The taxpayers are just getting ripped off. They didn't fight the fire for two days, they just watched it," said Jeff Schafer, a ranch manager in the area. "I saw crewman leaning up against their engines, with the fires right there at close range. They just sat in their rigs and didn't do a thing."
"I don't think they want anyone helping and it bugs them that we're here," added Schafer. "We're treated like we're second rate when we're trying to help fight this thing, and they won't take advice from anyone."
However, Umatilla National Forest Public Affairs Officer Joani Bosworth painted a different picture of the agency's response.
She said that when the fire broke out on July 13, resources were immediately dispatched to the area - which at that time was burning as several fires. The fires later merged into one large complex.
During July 13-14, two single air tankers, eight rappellers, two type 6 engines, and a 20 person handcrew was on site, she said.
"Then on the 14th, the Weather Service declared the situation a red flag warning," she said. "But resources to help fight the fires continued to be ordered, which included eight more 20 person crews.
"It was an erratic fire spreading over multi-jurisdictional land."
Since the fire broke out, the firefighting efforts have been hampered by erratic winds, updrafts and hot weather. Officials more recently had to pull a fire crew from one area because of falling snags.
She said fire officials would be willing to talk with neighbors who have concerns about the firefighting efforts.
"I would encourage the landowners to visit the fire camp and talk with camp officers and voice their concerns," she added.
Bosworth also offered an explanation for concerns raised about the ribbon system that was used to mark structures that might be in the path of the fire.
Neighbors said they saw a structure protection team from the Fire Marshal's Office marking residents' homes with blue and pink ribbons. They understood that blue meant the structure is defensible, and pink meant it was indefensible.
"One thing that's really got us mad is the ribbons they were putting in front of other people's driveways," said resident Jerry Cowger. "The truth of the matter is that they look at the structure and decide whether or not it's worth saving."
However, Bosworth said the ribbons were placed in front of structures to mark escape routes, water dip sites for helicopters, and whether or not water was readily available to help fight the fire.
"The color the marking did not indicate the level of protection the structure would get," said Bosworth. "The color of the ribbon may have also been the only colors available at the time."
Residents including Peterson don't buy that rationale. They said they felt the markings were based on the value of the structures, rating them according to whether they were worth saving.
As of this Tuesday, July 24, the Monument fire was still actively burning and still considered a threat to structures. In all, 967 people were assigned to the fire, which had grown to 46,000 acres. Crews had the blaze 40 percent contained, according to the interagency team staffing the fire.