By DAN SPATZ
The Dalles Chronicle
Intense heat and an electrical outage that eliminated the only available water source hampered firefighters’ ability to battle the Mt. Fir Chip Co. blaze on Saturday, according to Mid-Columbia Fire and Rescue.
The fast-moving fire was first reported at 5:15 p.m. by motorists, and by 5:38 p.m. reached the first of several log decks several hundred yards away.
Wind speeds were estimated at 35 to 40 miles per hour, and by the time crews arrived — within about five minutes of the initial reports — it was already too late to isolate the blaze, according to Lt. Fred Coleman, fire spokesman.
“We just couldn’t catch up,” he said, noting crews drove to Taylor Lakes and the log decks in an attempt to prevent the fire from spreading.
But the strong winds sent embers across the Taylor Lakes access road into the log decks.
By this time, two forestry engines, plus one engine and a tender from Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue, had reached the log decks, Coleman reported. Blowing embers began landing throughout the log company yard, igniting wood chips and starting a multitude of small fires.
“It was just spotting all over the place,” said Assistant Fire Chief Bob Palmer. “It was just a firestorm in there.”
Within minutes the first of several log decks was on fire, generating intense heat.
Elsewhere, the fire burned through two of three wooden poles supporting a Bonneville Power Administration transmission line, dropping the line onto two smaller transmission lines owned by Northern Wasco County PUD. Just before that occurred, BPA shut off its power as a safety precaution, acting in consultation with the fire department, Coleman said.
That lessened the risk of electrical discharges, but could not prevent the power outage that occurred when BPA’s lines fell across the PUD lines. As these shorted out, they cut power to a large region — including power to water pumps that served the fire control system used by Mt. Fir Chip Co., Coleman said, noting the company was not part of the city water system.
A 600,000 gallon water tank on-site was rapidly depleted as crews attempted to prevent the fire from spreading, and when it ran out firefighters’ only recourse was to shuttle water from the nearest city hydrant, located near the Wasco County Animal Shelter. The fire itself prevented firefighters from tapping directly into the Columbia River, Coleman added.
Meanwhile, the fire spread to additional log decks, creating intense heat sufficient to generate convection currents that lofted pieces of flaming bark across the Columbia River to start additional fires near Dallesport.
“Once those caught on fire there was no way to stay in there,” Coleman said. “I don’t know how to describe the heat ... We couldn’t get in there to protect (the log decks.)”
The problem was worsened by long hours fire crews had already logged on last week’s Sheldon Ridge Fire, Coleman added. That wildfire was declared fully controlled on Saturday evening — two hours after the Mt. Fir fire was reported.
“We’ve been working non-stop since the Sheldon Ridge fire started,” Coleman noted.
He emphasized the fire department appreciates support from the public throughout the fire situation.
“It’s just terrific,” he said. “The community is very supportive and we appreciate it very much. It’s been great.”
A total of 110 firefighters responded to the Mt. Fir fire, including crews from Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue, USDA Forest Service, Oregon Department of Forestry, The Dalles Public Works, the cities of Dufur, Dallesport, Lyle, Wishram, Moro, Odell, Parkdale, White Salmon and Hood River, as well as the West Side Fire Department from Hood River.
The fire was reported fully contained and controlled at 3 p.m. on Monday.
The fire destroyed three million board feet of pulp logs at Mt. Fir — the equivalent of between 800 and 1,000 log truck loads, Coleman said — along with the chip mill at Mt. Fir. Fire crews prevented the fire from spreading into the mill’s offices and shop area, and also protected The Dalles Concrete. Flames erupted through brush along Chenowith Creek with sufficient heat to break a window in a building at The Dalles Concrete, even though the building was separated from the creek by a two-lane paved road and a gravel buffer, Coleman said.
“We had two guys put a good stop on that,” he added. Embers from the log decks crossed the Columbia River, which is approximately 500 yards wide at this point, and ignited grass on the Washington side.
Overall, the fire burned 70 acres between the freeway and chip plant, and blackened another 75 acres near Dallesport.
Damage to the Mt. Fir mill is estimated at $4 million, making this among the most costly fires to hit The Dalles since the Great Fire of 1891, which destroyed most of downtown.