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What Caused the Wildfire?

January 8th, 2021 by dk

Jackson County hired a consulting firm to study how agencies prepared for and responded to the Almeda Fire in southern Oregon. No similar outside analysis of the Holiday Farm Fire has been announced. It’s time to hire outsiders to examine how the fire began, but also how the wildfire began. They are not the same thing.

Gale-force winds and drought conditions were two factors, but there may have been a third. The fire probably began with sparks from a downed power line, but that doesn’t explain how the fire got out of control and became a wildfire.

What follows may get uncomfortable, especially if you had direct experience with the tragedies of that night. Consider having somebody else read it first and summarize it for you.

A local video editor coupled images from that night with the emergency response scanner feed archived by Broadcastify. Her YouTube videos are heartrending, but they may help us begin to understand what happened.

The scanner chatter begins around 9:00 pm, just minutes after the fire was first reported. At 9:47, responders were still waiting for Lane Electric’s response. A bulldozer and Oregon Department of Forestry resources were blocked behind wires across the road.

Responders asked again at 10:24 pm if somebody could confirm which downed electrical wires were hot and which were not. The dispatcher responded at 10:36 that Bonneville Power is “unaware of those lines, so they are likely not shut down.”

An EWEB crew at 10:52 pm requested “to have the fire engaged at the initial start point, so they can get the lines out.” The firefighter command response was telling: “We are not going to engage active lines.” Two minutes later, Bonneville de-energized lines at Holden Creek Road.

Two hours were lost because crews could not be sure which wires were hot. That delay may have turned this fire into a wildfire. By the time those initial downed wires were de-energized, evacuation of downtown Blue River was already underway.

Whose responsibility was it to monitor and de-energize electrical lines in the case of an emergency that evening? If holiday staffing put replacements in that chain of command, were they properly trained and positioned? Were pre-emptive shutdowns considered properly ahead of the storm?

Is it possible the conflagration had three intersecting causes, not two? Would the fire not have become a wildfire if it hadn’t been a holiday weekend?

I ask these questions, understanding they are difficult ones and that the available information is incomplete. If an employee failed to do their job that Monday night, it would be bad for their career. If they hadn’t been properly trained, a supervisor may get punished. If back-up personnel forgot to keep their phones charged after family BBQs, that’s a shame. Those are real people, but they’re not the only ones.

I’d rather somebody lose their job or miss a promotion than have hundreds of people remain unsure about whether it will ever be safe to return to the McKenzie River Valley and the life they loved there.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at YouTube link:

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