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Brush fire damages Damascus businesses

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - An Tuesday, Aug. 18, fire at two Damascus busineses caused extensive damage to one of the city's few commercial buildings along Highway 212. The blaze was started when a truck backed into a juniper bush and quickly spread from there. 
In Pub 212, the acrid smell of smoke nearly overtook the usual mix of beer and French fries on Wednesday, Aug. 19, as regulars looked through the windows to the professional building just south of the bar, empty and blackened after a brush fire ravaged the building on Tuesday.

“We smelled smoke in here and then we looked outside and saw the trees on fire,” said Michelle Jenkins, as she tallied up a bill at the bar. “It spread right to the building.”

Around 5 p.m. Tuesday night, a pickup truck pulled into the parking lot of the Damascus Professional Building, at 20330 South Highway 212, and what happened next is a tragedy on all counts. The exhaust pipe made contact with a juniper bush and sparked a fire. First the tree-lined buffer in the parking lot went up in flames. Then, before anyone even had a chance to call 911, it spread to the building, which housed four businesses: Damascus Dentistry, Edward Jones, Kelaye Concrete and Damascus Physical Therapy.

“Because of the vegetation — juniper bushes, when they catch fire it’s almost like a flammable liquid - there were so many right there burning so hot and the winds were blowing. The arborvitaes were there and the fuel was there ready to go from the weather and all the heat,” said Clackamas County Fire Lt. Steve Hoffeditz

Luckily, there were no injuries as most people in the building had left to go home just minutes before the fire started. The Clackamas Fire Department along with Gresham Fire spent about two hours putting it out.

On Wednesday, it was the main topic of conversation in the small city.

“I was out here pumping gas and I looked across and saw a bunch of smoke,” said Tim Harpham, manager of the 76 gas station across the street from the building. “Within two minutes it was in the building.”

He yelled out to another employee to call 911, as did Jenkins at Pub 212, and soon sirens came wailing down the road. The damage had already been done, though.

The roof of the southern half of the building where Damascus Physical Therapy is located had collapsed and if it weren’t for a fire wall, the adjoining businesses — Edward Jones and Damascus Dentistry —would have been consumed as well.

“We fared OK,” said Debbie Gillham, office manager of Damascus Dentistry.

The office will likely be closed for several months, Gillham said, but compared to the other half of the building, the dentist office was relatively unharmed.

A construction contractor walked around the dark office on Wednesday, making his way around dental chairs and x-ray machines with a flash light assessing the damage as Gillham threw out smoke-damaged items like surgical masks.

Many in Damascus came out to see the damage for themselves after hearing the sirens or seeing it on the news.

“I heard the trucks going (Tuesday),” said Rick Johnson. “That’s the way she goes. There’s not much you can do about it.”

Another man, Bob Ammons, said he watched firefighters extinguish the flames from the nearby Safeway where there was “quite a crowd.”

“I came back today to see if my money was all burned up,” Ammons joked, standing outside Edward Jones.

The Damascus professional building is just the latest victim of wildfires around the state.

On Wednesday, Aug. 19, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (ORPD) prohibited all campfires in state parks and beaches.

“Our goal to avoid any accidental fires on OPRD property that would further tax limited firefighting resources,” said MG Devereux, OPRD deputy director. The ban will be in place for at least one week and will be re-evaluated based on fire status, weather, and guidance from state and local fire officials.

The same day, Gov. Kate Brown announced that she activated the Oregon National Guard to assist the firefighters. About 125 soldiers began training this week.

“Oregon National Guard members will join first responders who are working tirelessly to battle these unpredictable wildfires,” Brown said. “We have weeks of fire season left and it is incumbent upon us to make sure that above else, we continue to protect that public’s safety.”

In Clackamas County, Fire Lt. Hoffeditz said with the extremely dry conditions, brush fires can quickly get out of hand and cause extensive damage. He urged people to take caution with any heat source around vegetation.

“Any little spark, anything that you’ve got that’s warm - cigarettes, automobiles, lawn mowers, chain saws, anything like that that’s warm or hot that comes in contact with any type of vegetation — the conditions are so prime right now,” Hoffeditz said.

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