Fire down, then OUT
'Real heroes' were local firefighters who set stage for handling big blaze
Shortly after 9 p.m. Monday, a light rain began to fall in the foothills of the Coast Range south of Forest Grove.
To those who had spent a few hours creating chalk-art masterpieces on downtown sidewalks two days earlier, the patter of raindrops outside may have brought a tinge of disappointment.
But for scores of others it was the sound of relief assurance that the Scoggins Creek Fire of 2014 will go down in history not as a disaster, but as a success story.
There were moments when many of those on the front lines during the weekend battle had their doubts.
All the conditions were set for a big fire here, and thats what we expected to have to deal with when we showed up, said John Ingrao, a deputy fire chief from Clackamas County Fire District 1, who led a team of municipal firefighters assembled from across the Willamette Valley to protect 250 structures identified as being in danger.
In the end, the fire charred slightly more than 200 acres of timberland owned by the Stimson Lumber Company. And while 32 homeowners were warned to evacuate their residences as the blaze raged Friday through Sunday, no structures were burned.
Based on what we were seeing, we should have had thousands of acres and many more structures threatened, Ingrao told community members at a public meeting in Gaston Sunday evening.
Gaston Fire Chief Roger Mesenbrink, one of the first to arrive at the scene Friday afternoon, was amazed by how quickly the fire exploded from an area the size of his fire station garage to 10 acres, at one point spitting out flaming materials in a 500-foot circle.
Ive seen a fair amount of brush fires and Ive never seen one burn with as crazy a pattern as that one burned on Friday, Mesenbrink said. Thats probably because weve got the driest fuels weve had in a lot of years.
The fact that by Tuesday morning the fire was deemed 83 percent contained is due to several factors, including the availability of lake water, milder-than-expected winds on Saturday and the gentle rains that began Monday night.
But those involved including two state agencies, Washington County, firefighters from as far away as Eugene and Stimson employees also credited a cohesive, determined display of teamwork.
Recapping the fire
In an operation involving 467 personnel from multiple agencies working in 15 crews, its impossible to capture the magnitude of the work. So, heres a brief recap.
On Friday afternoon, Mesenbrinks office responded to what seemed like a small brush fire along Scoggins Creek, on Stimson land just northwest of Hagg Lake.
The tinder-dry conditions resulted in the fire spreading quickly and a lot of smoke, so Mesenbrink called in some help from Forest Grove Fire & Rescue, Washington County and Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue.
They issued an evacuation warning for people living along nearby Stepien Road and worked late into the evening before Mesenbrink faced a tough choice.
We had to make the decision: Are we going to handle this by ourselves? Or, if this goes south, whats going to happen? he said, recalling his internal conversation. And basically my decision was that right now, things look good. But if that fire was going to move like it had been moving, theres no way we have the resources to deal with that.
The next step involved a late-night call to Gov. John Kitzhaber, asking him to declare a wildfire emergency.
I wont go into the details, Mesenbrink said. But when that phone call is made, a lot of things happen. Its amazing.
The main thing that occurred was a mobilization of statewide resources under Oregons Emergency Conflagration Act.
For Joe Hessel, a forester with the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF), it meant a quick trip from LaGrande, where he is normally stationed.
It was his sixth firefighting foray this year but the first to northwest Oregon, which normally sends its local firefighters to help out elsewhere in the region.
Hessel, who served as operations section chief in the battle against the blaze, had soot on his pants but a smile on his face when he addressed the 150 people gathered inside the Gaston Rural Fire District garage for Sunday nights briefing.
Although the fire had not been completely contained at that time, the 137,000 gallons of water dropped on the burn site had extinguished most of the flames and crews had succeeded with bulldozers and shovels in creating a line of fuel-free space around the entire perimeter.
The line is in place, Hessel said, but theres a lot of work yet to be done out there. These fuels are extremely dry. A little bit of rain is in the forecast and thats going to help a lot but Im sure people are going to be out there for a long time after we leave..
Hessel went out his way to praise the cooperative effort of the operation as well as the work Mesenbrink and other local fire officials did before his arrival.
When we got here the fire was pretty active, he said. I want to pat the local folks on the back. Their initial attack was awesome. They set the stage for us to pick up the pieces to move forward successfully.
By Tuesday evening, the Washington County Sheriffs office had lifted the evacuation orders and announced that the park which had been closed to give trucks and aircraft free use of the roads and lake would reopen today.
Tuesday morning, a message on the Scoggins Creek Fire 2014 Facebook page was succinct: Last night was the final night shift for this incident.
And while there is always the danger of a flare-up, the mood Tuesday stood in stark contrast to the tension felt around the region Friday night and Saturday.
Ingrao, who on Saturday had his hands full staging equipment and personnel around nearby homes, agreed that decisions made in the first eight hours were a big part of why his crews never had to put a hose on a single home.
The real heroes here are your local fire departments and your county, he said. Because what they did was get on the scene and start suppressing the fire. They went big early, and thats a testament to understanding what the threat was here.
Officials said that as of Tuesday morning, the total cost of fighting the fire was $1.87 million. Its cause is still under investigation.