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Crews battle Rowland Lake blaze city firefighters stay busy as well

Local fire crews were kept very on July 4 last week, and fireworks appeared to be the blame

Welcome to July.

Local fire crews were kept very busy on July 4 last week, and fireworks appeared to be to blame. The upshot may be a restriction on where fireworks can be used in the future.

The most serious fire was at Rowland Lake, five miles east of Bingen. A wildland fire got started on the evening of July 4 and burned approximately 80 acres just west of Rowland Lake.

The fire, reported at 9:45 p.m., burned grass, ponderosa pine, and oak stands -- and a lot of poison oak too.

Fire crews from the U.S. Forest Service, Washington Department of Natural Resources, and the Oregon Department of Forestry responded to battle the fire. Nearly 200 firefighters were on the scene by Thursday, with a command center set up at Lyle High School.

The area is primarily national forest and Washington State Parks land. Because of the steep slopes at the site, fire suppression efforts went relatively slowly. Strong wind gusts also hampered work to contain the fire.

"It spread fast initially," explained Mike Ferris, public affairs officers for the U.S. Forest Service. "The wind was annoying, very gusty, with the potential to have the fire spot."

Ferris said because there are few fires in the West right now, there were more firefighters available to attack the Rowland Lake blaze quickly.

"We were lucky to get the hotshot crews this time," he explained. "They are trained to deal with the most difficult terrain. We're all going to be scrambling for resources in the next couple of weeks."

Two helicopters were called in on July 5. They dropped water buckets into Rowland Lake and repeatedly doused the flames from the air.

"The helicopters helped tremendously," Ferris said.

The helicopters were based at Bingen Point, on Port of Klickitat property.

"It was real nice of Dianne (Sherwood, manager of the Port of Klickitat) to give us permission to use Port land as a staging area. She is one of the unsung heroes in this -- we appreciate the cooperation. Without questions or debate, it was, `Sure, come in, where do you want to be.'"

A portion of the Old Highway around Rowland Lake was closed on Thursday and Friday, because rocks were occasionally tumbling off the hillsides and firefighting equipment was blocking traffic.

No homes or structures were threatened in the blaze.

While the specific cause of the fire remained undetermined, fireworks were suspected.

"It points to human causes, and it really points to fireworks," Ferris said.

The Bingen and White Salmon fire departments were also busy on the Fourth of July.

A Wednesday evening fire started along the riverbank, near the fruit bins owned by Underwood Fruit. The wooden bins, dozens of them stacked high, were threatened by the flames.

Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel said all four of the Bingen Fire Department's rigs were out working to battle a fire on Bingen Point. SDS Lumber Co. sent out its water tank truck to add muscle to firefighting efforts.

"Every rig was out on that. It was good SDS volunteered use of their tank truck. That certainly helped," Prigel said.

"Luckily it went around the fruit bins without igniting them," Prigel explained. "That would have been a mess."

Meanwhile, White Salmon crews knocked down a fire in the area behind the Mt. Adams Chamber of Commerce office, near the new in-lieu fishing site.

It made for a busy evening.

"All the trucks from Bingen and White Salmon were out," said White Salmon Mayor Roger Holen. "We had Husum fire crews standing by for backup. There was no significant property damage, but a lot of smoke and flames."

Prigel said there was little doubt about the source of the fire at Bingen Point.

"It was caused by fireworks, almost certainly," Prigel said. "I know the Port picked up many garbage cans full of trash the next morning. There were spent fireworks, bottles, cans, and other trash left from everyone there."

The July 4 fires, and the potential for even more serious fires in the future, is pushing the Port toward banning fireworks on its property from now on.

"It's pretty disturbing," said Port Manager Dianne Sherwood. "I really don't want to do it, but I'm going to recommend banning fireworks. If those fruit bins had gone up, it would have been a very very serious fire. The fire department did a great job. It could have been catastrophic. The fire burned up to the bins on three sides."

On Thursday, Bingen fire crews were twice called out to douse hot spots that rekindled in the Bingen Point area.

Sherwood pointed out that the Port has new buildings that house several businesses, and that investment needs to be protected.

"It's definitely out of control, and it's just not safe," she explained. "After this year, it (a fireworks ban) has to be done. I don't understand why a few people think it's OK to set off fireworks in the grass."

Sherwood said that if the Port Commissioners agree to pass the ban this week, the Klickitat County Sheriff's Office and the police would be asked to help enforce it next year.

Mayor Prigel said the Bingen City Council might consider more restrictions on fireworks use as well.

"After the fires, we get people asking about banning fireworks entirely, or what we can do to make it safer," he said. "It's an issue we'll have to address sooner or later. We'll have to look at regulating them. It's a touchy subject, no doubt about it. I'm reluctant to have an outright ban but the current practice is very dangerous. Fireworks are going off everywhere, in neighborhoods, into the neighbor's yard; it's a real problem."

Ferris said the warning signs are up for a dangerous summer.

"People need to be on alert," he said. "It's early, and we're already seeing numerous human-related fires. We appeal to people to be prudent out there."


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