On Aug. 28, five firefighters from the contracted Strike Back firefighting team from Dayville plunged off of a steep ravine on the Dug Bar Road nine miles north of Imnaha. At best, the road is very rugged and dangerous, and some, including 16-year Imnaha resident Don Siedelman, were not surprised that a major accident occurred.
"The Dug Bar Road is in deplorable condition and they haven't done anything in years," said an angry Siedelman. "The Forest Service did not want to do any maintenance."
The good news is that all five of the firefighters are recovering satisfactorily. The bad news is that the road is still dangerous.
The road from Imnaha to Dug Bar can be divided into three stretches: the county maintained paved stretch from Imnaha to Fence Creek, approximately six miles; the 18-mile stretch from Fence Creek to Cow Creek; and the seven-mile stretch from Cow Creek to Dug Bar.
The second stretch of road is maintained by the Forest Service on a biennial basis at best, says the Forest Service assistant forest engineer Jeff Stein, who is based in the Enterprise office.
The road from Fence Creek to Dug Bar is owned in places by the Forest Service, private landowners and the county. The Forest Service voluntarily maintains the road without a written agreement, according to Stein and Wallowa County Commissioner Mike Hayward,
The Forest Service cannot take its grader to work on the final seven miles from Cow Creek to Dug Bar because of weight limitations on the Cow Creek Bridge, Stein said.
Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen, whose office talked by telephone with the Strike Back driver of the wayward vehicle, Rigo Perez, from his hospital bed in Spokane, Wash., learned that the crew-cab pickup drove toward the edge to avoid hitting a rock and got too close to the edge. Perez reportedly put the vehicle in reverse, but the ledge gave way and the vehicle rolled 400 feet before stopping.
Some information from that Thursday night in late August is sketchy. Perez's crew cab was the last of four Strike Back vans to go past the rock and no one had stopped to remove it from the road.
"It is a very, very rugged and primitive road," said Steen. He said it was in the switchbacks where the accident happened.
Stein said that the last time a grader had been sent to the stretch between Fence Creek and Cow Creek was nearly two years ago. He said the "road runs across solid rock and there is nothing that can be done." He said he thought the location where the Strike Back van went off of the road was on a stretch of road owned by the county.
Hayward said that it would take several million dollars to make the road safe.
Before the accident happened Hayward said that he had been in contact with the Forest Service and was under the impression that the maintenance schedule on the rugged road would be upgraded to annual maintenance.
Stein said the Forest Service does send a backhoe to the stretch of road each year to clean ditches and take spring slides off of the road.
Don Siedelman was pointed in his criticism of the Forest Service, saying that the federal agency should have spent money upgrading the Dug Bar Road instead of spending money upgrading the less used Hat Point-Memaloose Road during the Lightning Complex Fire.
In response to that criticism, Stein said that the improvements to the Hat Point-Memaloose Road had been ordered by the Blue Mountain Incident Management Team which had initially intended to set up its command post at Memaloose before settling on the rodeo grounds in Joseph.
Stein said that two years ago the county had expressed an interest in taking over the maintenance of the 18-mile stretch of road from Fence Creek to Cow Creek. He was under the impression that Wallowa-Whitman Forest Supervisor Karyn Wood did not wish to relinquish control of the remaining seven miles to Dug Bar.