HERMISTON — As the Umatilla County Fair opened its gates for business on Thursday, dark clouds rolled in overhead while a damp warmth clung to the air.
Most vendors appeared unconcerned with tents propped above them and their valuables, while others without that luxury nervously watched the darkness wash over the grounds at Hermiston’s Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center.
According to the National Weather Service, there’s plenty more where they came from and the fair is ready for it.
“We have an entire emergency management plan in place,” director of fair security John Eckhardt said.
Early Thursday morning, the NWS issued a red flag warning, indicating the area’s warm temperatures, low humidity and strong winds have combined for critical fire conditions. That risk is elevated by predicted thunderstorms with abundant lightning that follows a dry period in the region, according to the warning.
Storms were expected to begin Thursday afternoon and evening with more occurring Friday and extending into Saturday afternoon. The NWS projects the storms will gradually produce more and more rainfall with them and the red flag warning is in effect until 10 a.m. on Saturday.
Emergency contingencies at the fair are coordinated by Umatilla County Sheriff Terry Rowan and his office.
While the emergency management plan doesn’t explicitly outline the procedure for thunder and lightning in the area, Rowan and Ekchardt echoed the same plan of getting people to shelter, whether that be at the ground’s event center, barns, or people’s personal vehicles.
Much of the plan, Rowan said, is dedicated to mitigating the risks of high winds that the fair commonly faces each year. If the winds exceed 20 mph, the carnival will stop operating the Ferris wheel and other elevated rides until the gusts subside.
Eckhardt said that other rides would still be operational during severe winds and that there are provisions at the concert stage that allow for the canopy to be lowered so that the music can keep going.
Severe weather, other than dry heat, hasn’t been a common problem at the Umatilla County Fair, according to Eckhardt and Rowan.
Rowan said the last major event he can recall is eight or nine years ago when a temporary “high wind event” suspended the fair and forced them to gather people into Hermiston High School until conditions were safe.
Eckhardt isn’t expecting anything like that this year.
“We aren’t anticipating too heavy of winds at this point,” he said of the gusts that were expected to reach 23 mph on Thursday.
However, Eckhardt acknowledged the fire hazard that current conditions pose.
In the event of a fire, Hermiston-based Umatilla County Fire District No. 1 has units on-site with dispatchers providing additional quick communication to other available units. Sheriff Rowan said there’s also five EMTs and two response vehicles for medical emergencies.
Last weekend, storms sparked 15-20 fires in the Umatilla National Forest that have been fought and mostly contained over the past few days.
An additional risk, according to the NWS, is that any fires that are started during a red flag period are likely to spread rapidly.
For any potential emergency, weather-related or not, Rowan highlighted that police and fair staff’s communication is essential to its planning. A dispatcher will be located on-site with the ability to connect with the county’s usual dispatch if necessary, while the fair staff are each outfitted with radios.
“You don’t need to stay home, we’re well prepared,” Eckhardt said.
As for the Farm-City Pro Rodeo, board director Dennis Barnett said there are also emergency plans in place for severe weather. While wind and rain won’t impact the competition, Barnett said lightning would require the stands to be evacuated and people to join those from the fair at the event center and barns.
In his 31 years working at the rodeo, Barnett said there’s only been two instances where the rodeo had to be stopped for weather. Both times it resumed, and then finished later that night.