Driven by the possibility of a catastrophic wildfire on Burdoin Mountain, a group of citizens who live in the area are working to get a "satellite" fire station built there.
The plan is being guided by Fred Heany, who was chosen as president of the newly-formed Lower Burdoin Community Council, which was formed last year. Heany is a landowner in the area.
The site where the proposed fire station would be built is on federal land overseen by the U.S. Forest Service as a "special management area" of the National Scenic Area.
Dan Harkenrider, the U.S. Forest Service's area manager for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, came to a special meeting on the topic at the Lyle Fire Station on Jan. 17. Harkenrider said he was willing to help move the project forward.
"One of the permitted uses in that designation is a fire station. That is something that could happen out there. It's totally discretionary," Harkenrider said. "We have to have good reasons to build on public lands, and we have to be reasonably assured that good faith alternatives were looked at. And we have to open the proposal up to the general public for comment."
Heany said the footprint of the proposed building and driveway covers two acres at most. He estimated the building itself would be about 48 feet wide by 36 feet deep, or enough to hold three firefighting vehicles. The site is centrally-located on the mountain.
Support for the plan appears to be widespread and growing. Because the Lyle Fire Department is the primary responder to fires on Burdoin Mountain, the Lyle Fire Department has been supportive of the project. However, no formal stand on the project has yet been taken by the Lyle Fire Commissioners.
Harkenrider pointed out that he couldn't give a definitive answer on whether the Forest Service could fund the necessary analysis of the project until the agency was informed what its budget for fiscal year 2002 would be. That information is expected around Feb. 1.
Lyle Fire Chief Wayne Trosper pointed out that the Burdoin Mountain area is at high risk.
"If a fire goes in there right now, we're in trouble," he said. "There are 35 homes on that mountain."
Trosper said the site of the proposed fire station is about 8.5 miles from the fire station in Lyle. It generally takes 20 minutes or more once a call comes in to reach the site.
Trosper said the station would likely be a "one- or two-bay satellite station."
"There's a need to have a station, but we have to be real careful about it, because other areas in the district are like that too and we can't afford to put stations at the end of all these roads," Trosper said. "Plus, we could put out a lot of money here and still not get a station. The department can't afford even $10,000 to $15,000 of these fees for all these inspections without any guarantee we'll get a station there."
Harkenrider pointed out that he didn't see the project as being very complicated.
"It's a well-defined piece of land, and the footprint of the building is defined, and where you're going to be," he said. "The actual design, color, and reflectivity would go through us or the Gorge Commission. If we can mitigate those concerns, I don't think it would be a big issue. There are a number of hoops to jump through, but an environmental assessment can be relatively quickly done. It's not necessarily burdensome on you or us."
Although offering encouragement and optimism that the project would be permitted, Harkenrider stressed that no promises of approval to build a station could be made at this point.
"Even after all the analyses, there is no guarantee a permit would be issued. But I certainly understand and appreciate the concerns, and I share those. My fire folks concede the need -- they've responded to many fires out there," he explained.
Harkenrider pledged to quickly provide an estimate of the costs of the needed studies.
Heany said the project would have benefits all around.
"This is a win for wildlife, for the Forest Service, and for the public. I don't see why we need paralysis by analysis. It's a good project," Heany said.
Heany added that he was more optimistic after the meeting than he was going in.
"There is some work yet to do, but we feel the meeting was definitely productive," Heany said. "Realistically, getting a satellite station built could take 24-36 months. If I were being incredibly optimistic, I'd say it could be done in 12 months. We have good support from the Lyle Fire Department. There is a real benefit for Lyle if this area is able to handle its own fires. It could be a real lifesaver."
The Cherry Lane Fire Station in Snowden also responds to fire calls on Burdoin Mountain, and the Snowden Community Council has registered its support for the proposed station.
"A Burdoin fire station could benefit both Lyle and Snowden," wrote Chris Connolly, president of the Snowden Community Council, in a Dec. 4 letter to Terry Mills, chair of the Lyle Community Council. "The Snowden Community Council recognizes the importance of responding quickly to fires on Burdoin Mountain. We support the idea of building a fire station on Burdoin, provided it has the support of the majority of the people living in that area and is sited appropriately."
"We see a need for the station," Connolly explained. "It takes time to get there, and time always is critical with fires. There is a definite need. A station up there would be an important contribution to both fire districts."
The project is also getting support from the Klickitat County Board of Commissioners.
"Absolutely, it's necessary," agreed Klickitat County Commissioner Don Struck. "There have been a lot of residences built there in the last 20 years and they do need facilities for fire protection."
Mike Ferris, spokesperson for the Forest Service, said more information was needed before a final decision could be reached.
"There's a need for some analysis," Ferris said. "The first thing that Dan (Harkenrider) needs before he makes a commitment is if there is someplace more suitable to fill the need. But the important point is, the land use does allow a fire station up there. It's important to have equipment right there rather than 20 minutes away. Since we're a neighbor up there we want to work in cooperation with everyone involved."
In the meantime, Ferris noted that the Forest Service plans to reduce the fuel supply on the mountain this spring through manual pruning and thinning of about 200 acres.
"We plan to start treating the fuels around there and start to clear that up. If we do that, there's a good chance we can jump on a fire in the initial attack," he said.
Trosper said he figured it would take a bit more time to find out if the station could be built, but was glad to see the issue getting attention.
"It's wait and see," Trosper said. "I knew this was an issue when I became fire chief. This issue has been going on for about six years. Maybe this is the time to take care of it."