In reading the comments from Multnomah County officials and representatives from Friends of Columbia Gorge regarding the cutting of trees located to the east of the Troutdale Airport, I am struck by two facts.
First, how quickly they forget what happened in the Multnomah Falls fire in October 1991. In that fire, which took place in dry East Wind conditions, water tankers that were flying from Troutdale were able to make significant progress in battling the fire in the first 12 hours of the fire. In fact, they were flying so often, they exhausted the supply of retardant at the Troutdale Airport.
Because of windy conditions and the extreme, inaccessible steep terrain of the gorge, it would not have been possible to fight this fire effectively with only firefighters if it had not been for the use of water tankers flying in the first hours. End result: a great deal of beautiful scenery was saved, and most importantly, firefighter lives did not have to be risked unnecessarily. Even more important, not one life was lost in the four-day operation that burned more than 1,000 acres.
Secondly, the current public comments from both groups of officials seem to have a myopic preoccupation with following the 'correct procedures' rather than any mention of safety of people - civilians or firefighters in the gorge or the population in the large response area of the water tankers flying from Troutdale. As an example, Mr. Gorman, who is the executive director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge, makes not a mention of the life safety issue in his July 29 guest column in The Outlook. In light of the 1991 experience, I find it hard to believe that Multnomah County thinks that a 'rapid' removal of approximately 1,000 trees could take place in a timely fashion to deal with a fire that would be burning in dry East Wind conditions of 20 to 30 mph, as well as terrain that is difficult to access safely with only firefighters.
Hopefully, Multnomah County officials were observant enough to recognize that many of the problems in the New Orleans flooding last fall were a result of officials not planning adequately. One of the basic lessons of disaster preparation is that by failing to plan, organizations plan to fail. As a citizen of Multnomah County who lives near the Columbia River Gorge, I would hope that Multnomah County officials would permit the trees to be cut now in early August rather than wait until a fire breaks out this fall, when historically, the most dangerous fire and wind conditions exist. By doing this they would plan for success and demonstrate that life safety is their No. 1 priority in the unfortunate event of a fire in the Columbia River Gorge. This approach seems a lot more prudent than the current philosophy, which is to protect 'correct procedures' rather than lives and the scenery of the Columbia River Gorge.