WALLOWA — Firefighters and trucks from agencies all over Oregon converged on Wallowa on Saturday, July 17, to make plans to take over fighting the approximately 11,000-acre Elbow Creek Fire in northern Wallowa County on June 18.
More than 70 people gathered in the gymnasium of Wallowa Elementary School for an “in-briefing” chaired by John Buckman, a retired district forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry, filling in while Matt Howard, of the Wallowa Unit, is away fighting another fire.
Outside the school were a couple dozen fire and support trucks from agencies such as the Mount Angel, Keizer, Jefferson and Silverton fire districts; the Oregon Department of Forestry, the U.S. Forest Service, Marion County, the state Fire Marshal’s Office and even as far away as Portland Fire Rescue.
Wallowa County Commissioners Todd Nash, John Hillock and Susan Roberts all expressed their appreciation that so many people from so many agencies showed up in the county’s time of need.
“We’re grateful for the expertise and the help from all these people,” Commission Chairman Nash said. “They’re well prepared.”
Buckman announced to the group the immediate plans to transfer command of the fire from local efforts to the task force assembled in Wallowa.
“We will have a transfer of command for this team,” he said. “We have an (6 a.m.) day shift and then at (6 p.m.) the next shift,” he said. “We also hold a (10 a.m.) cooperator meeting.”
He said there also would be a daily planning meeting at 4 p.m. to get the latest updates on the fire and make plans for the following day.
Buckman introduced various agency leaders and cooperators and urged them to get together after the hourlong meeting to work out the details of how they’ll attack the blaze.
Most who spoke emphasized firefighter safety, minimizing the damage to property the fire could cause, working closely with the local communities.
COVID on the fire line
Several also mentioned coronavirus safety. Link Smith, incident commander for the team being assembled, mentioned that last year, fire teams were under a strong protocol to avoid spreading the virus — everyone wearing face masks and social distancing.
“Usually, we have what we call ‘camp crud.’ But last year, with everybody wearing masks, nobody had it because of the protocols,” Smith said. “But this year, we’ve backed off. None of us are wearing masks — or at least very few of us are. But there’s still a variant (of coronavirus) out there and a lot of people are still getting sick.”
He said there’s probably higher rate of sickness among firefighters because most are younger and less inclined to get vaccinated. He urged no more handshakes and to do fist or elbow bumps so as to not spread germs.
Smith also emphasized the purpose of the team.
“As for what a team does, we don’t really come in to support the districts,” he said. “We’re here to support the firefighters. They’re the ones putting the fires out. We’re also here to support the landowners who fight fires, too.”
Help from loggers
Once such representative of a landowner present was Joe Justice, regional manager for Hancock Forest Management. He said Hancock, which harvests timber through logging contractors, has already lost hundreds of acres of timber with several thousand more threatened.
His contractors; including Henderson, Kellerman and High Ridge Logging; are active fighting the fire since they have equipment such as bulldozers in place useful for firefighting.
“Henderson’s out there in a big way. He’s got a number of pieces of equipment good for fighting fire,” Justice said. “We’ll be bringing more contractors in. That’s all part of the integrated firefighting process.
Wallowa County Emergency Services Director Paul Karvoski, who has been on the east end of the fire almost continually from its Thursday start, said that although it didn’t increase much on July 17, it remains zero percent contained.
“Things are going good up there,” he said. “But it’s zero percent until we can get it backburned. It’s hot down there.”