Open Lane County’s Forest Work Camp to stage forest fire fighters? I made the decision and I’ll stand by it. by Pat Farr

 

On a steamy and still summer night in 2014 at about three o’clock in the morning my phone on the night stand beside my bed rang…I picked it up with appropriately and predictably blurry eyes and an equally blurry brain.  I had been dreaming about fishing on a calm lake in the high Cascades and suddenly I was brought back into reality by the sound of  “Time keeps on slippin’ slippin’ slippin’…”

Forest fire central command was established at Lane County's mothballed forest work camp

Forest fire central command was established at Lane County’s mothballed forest work camp

When I say my phone rang, what I actually mean is that my iPhone woke up and played my ring tone, Steve Miller Band’s “Fly like an Eagle.”

The tone and identity of the voice on the other end of the phone cleared my eyes and my brain within about five seconds, “Commissioner Farr, this is Sheriff Turner.”

Holy cow, the sheriff is calling me in the middle of the night.  How many people ever—ever get a call from the sheriff in the middle of the night?  In that it is not a regular occurrence for me, my newly cleared mind began racing to answer the question, “What is wrong?”

Because nothing right could be coming from this call.

And my assessment was correct.  “We have a big fire…”  So why was Sheriff Tom Turner calling me about a fire?

“The Forest Service has crews coming in and they need a staging area…we have a building in Alma and I need permission to let them in…”

I said, “OK, go ahead and open it…”  I was hoping he did not expect me to have a key.

As is turned out the “building in Alma” was our mothballed Forest Work Camp, which is quite a bit more than a building.  It’s about 30 acres of dormitories, commissaries, classrooms and service buildings.  And opening it did not mean turning the key and swinging the door.  It meant turning the facility over to the firefighting command and letting them bring in equipment, helicopters, hundreds of fire fighters and occupying the entire property as a central command point for a lot of fires that had started to erupt in one of the hottest, driest summers on record.

And as it turned out I did not have the authority to say, “OK.”  But I did and I would again, a hundred times, given the same set of circumstances.

What progressed was an efficient and dynamic command center that saved millions and millions of dollars’ worth of timber resources and irreplaceable recreation land and wildlife habitat.  Having a well-located and well-equipped command center very likely saved lives.

The next day I had to answer for my actions…”That was not your call…”

Well, I begged to differ.  I did in fact receive the call and if I had taken time to think the request through instead of making a split-second decision I would have drawn the same conclusion a hundred times:  fight the fire—I’ll handle the paperwork details later…

Aftermath of my decision was not just the saved timber and resources but Lane County began to reevaluate its emergency plan.  Another benefit was that the Forest Service completely cleaned up the camp, knocked down the brush and breathed new life into the Alma Forest Work Camp.

It will never again be a work camp for inmates, but its new life may include residential training, veterans support, farming…

and, oh, yes, a command center for forest fires.

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