WALLOWA COUNTY — The first priority of firefighters in their battle against the Elbow Creek Fire in northern Wallow County — or any blaze — is the safety of people endangered by the flames. That’s why the various levels of evacuation orders were given starting late last week.
Paul Karvoski, emergency services director for Wallowa County, explained the difference in the levels during an in-brief meeting Saturday, July 17, in Wallowa.
Level 1 is be ready to evacuate. Level 2, he said, is have your valuables packed and set to go if things get worse. Early Monday, the eastern and southern sides of the blaze, bordering on Troy and Promise, were at Level 2, while the core area of the fire, including Eden Bench and a stretch of the Grande Ronde River, was Level 3.
“Level 3 is open your front door, jump in your car and go; go now,” he said. “We can give the Level 3 evacuation order to say we want you to go and leave the area.”
He said there are about 20 homes on Eden Bench at the heart of the fire. As of Monday, only one structure had been destroyed by the blaze.
Karvoski said that only if the fire actually threatens lives would law enforcement get involved.
“It’s up to the sheriff, really, and you can’t really pull people from their homes unless there’s an imminent threat,” he said.
Acting Wallowa County Sheriff Paul Pagano, filling in for the ailing Sheriff Joel Fish, and assisted by Baker County Sheriff Travis Ash, said there have been no incidents where law enforcement was called upon to insist on an evacuation.
Anyone who may have left so far has not had to make use of emergency services, Karvoski said. The county has an arrangement with the Red Cross to put evacuees up at a church in Lewiston, Idaho, but none have yet asked for such help, although as the smoke covers the county, that option is still being considered. Late Monday afternoon, smoke lay heavily on the Enterprise and Joseph areas.
Karvoski also said the Wallowa County Fairgrounds are open and available for any ranchers needing a place to keep their livestock threatened by the blaze. Although some have moved their stock from threatened areas, they haven’t gone so far as to move them to the fairgrounds.
County Commissioner Todd Nash said there has been virtually no resistance to commission-ordered road closures in the burn area. He said the closures aren’t so much because of the area residents as to keep curious onlookers out.
“That’s what the road closures are for, to keep people out who just want to see the fire,” he said.
Watching the fire from the Flora-Troy Road about 5 miles from Troy, Travis Beach heeded the warnings Thursday evening to be prepared to evacuate.
“We’re ready to go. We’re nervous,” he said. “We have our stuff packed and ready to go.”
He was there talking with friends Donald and Kathy Casper, who with their son, drove pickups from Wallowa to help.
“We came out to lend a hand to our friends,” Kathy Casper said. “We have several friends here in Flora that might need their equipment moved. They didn’t have enough people to move their equipment so we were coming out to help.”
“Everyone I know of was doing fine or had gotten out,” Donald Casper said.
Jim Henson, who was watching farther up the road, also was ready to go.
“We’re as packed as we can be. Put valuables in a go bag and park the equipment in a fallow field that’s been plowed. There’s the house and outbuildings, the hay and crops in the fields we can’t do much about.”
“Unfortunately, for our friends and clients in Troy and on Eden Bench, it doesn’t look so promising,” Kathy Casper said. “Travis has a beautiful home down the hill.”
On Thursday, it was a bit early to determine the fire’s cause, but the area residents talked to had their ideas.
“From what they’re saying it was a sleeper from the lightning storm a week ago that just smoldered and then took off or it’s man-caused,” Beach said. “I can’t speculate.”
Henson agreed the sleeper was possible, but had other ideas.
“It’s probably a man-caused fire,” he said. “I don’t know what else it could be. It’s right there on the river.”
As for whether the blaze will reach their property, Henson said, “It’s 50-50. It is what it is.”
Over the weekend, Brock Eckstein, the pro-tem administrator of the city of Joseph, said from his office in Elgin he had been busy helping family in the Troy area prepare to evacuate. His family live south of Troy just inside the Level 2 area.
“I went and got my grandparents place ready,” Eckstein said. “I’ve got grandparents, aunts and uncles out that way. There are quite a few homes. We’re just waiting for the call.”
Air quality impacted
Air quality levels suffered Sunday and Monday, with multiple fires, including the massive Bootleg Fire, having impacted local air quality.
The AQI peaked at 185 — in the unhealthy range — in Enterprise on Sunday, according to the Department of Environmental Quality’s website — then climbed to 186 Monday. It dropped below 100 Tuesday afternoon.