Disaster averted in Wallowa fire

Kathleen Ellyn/ChieftainWallowa City Fire Chief John Campbell examines the fork lift that caused all the drama at Back Achers in Wallowa early Monday morning.

Wallowa Fire Chief John Campbell received a phone call from school bus driver Tonya Starmer of Wallowa at approximately 7:40 a.m. Dec. 11.

Smoke was billowing out of the Back-Achers business on the Truck Route Road in Wallowa.

Campbell leapt into his fire gear and gathered the troops.

When both of the Wallowa Volunteer Fire Department trucks arrived on the scene, the view was alarming. Black smoke was pouring from under the eaves of the 9,000 square-foot building, which houses a resale and discount business owned by Ben and JoAnn Deal.

A large area of the building contains lumber.

“We put in a call for assistance from Lostine and Enterprise right away,” said Campbell. “We didn’t know what we had and given the size of that building — we had mutual aid from Lostine and Enterprise.”

Bus driver Starmer had called Mason Hafer and Travis Goebel after calling Campbell, so several volunteers beat the fire trucks to the scene. Hafer and Goebel discovered the cause of the smoke — a burning forklift in the lumberyard portion of the building.

Next door across the railroad track at the Tanzey Forest Improvement wood lot, Butch Tanzey and his employee B.J. Arborgast were warming up the equipment to start woodcutting and “B.J. looked across and said ‘Holy Cow, look at that!’” Tanzey recalled. “Black smoke was boiling out. We grabbed our fire extinguishers and ran over there and gave them to the firemen and then ran back to get the 757-9 Hyundai wheel loader to pull the Hyster out of the building. On the way over I told BJ the brakes on the Hyster could be locked up, but BJ had a plan all figured out. He’s a good worker.”

Firemen attached chains to the mast of the Hyster, and Arborgast lifted it and dragged it out with the wheel loader.

Campbell reported the fork lift fire appeared to be electrical. “There was no water damage to the building, and no visible fire damage to the structure though thick smoke filled the business and smoke damage had yet to be assessed.

The Deals said they are lucky. The building has a huge exhaust fan that was put to work and other fans were stationed throughout the building.

Starmer said she spotted the fire as she turned off of Truck Route Road onto Douglas Street, approaching her second stop of the morning with the Head Start bus.

“Sitting clear up in my bus I could see gray smoke pouring out of every place smoke could come out of that building,” she said. “I told teacher’s assistant Julie Spang, who rides with me and buckles the little kids in, to call 911.”

Spang had to leave the bus at that moment to meet a child, so Starmer made the calls.

“I hadn’t even pulled away from that stop and Mason Hafer and Travis Goebel were already at the site,” Starmer said. “I knew the response was going to be really fast.”

All citizens involved shrugged off the notion of any heroics.

“We were just doing what we do in Wallowa County,” Tanzey said.

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