Nearly midway into the predictably dry and dangerous month of August, Wallowa County residents remain braced for a potential outbreak of fast-spreading wildfire and that phenomenon’s attendant and familiar chaos, even as we continue to hold out hope that it won’t actually happen this year. With more than a little luck, there’s a chance we might escape the typical consumption of tens of thousands of acres and weeks of unhealthful air everywhere.

At least wildfire season doesn’t take anyone by surprise. During the long weeks of watching and waiting, experts periodically assess combustibility – just how dry and densely grown is everything currently? – while everyone tracks the weather non-stop, trying to anticipate those dreadful and inevitable lightning strikes. At this time of year, firefighting agencies stand poised to immediately respond with nearly everything they’ve got.

Compared to the circumstances that usually surround wildfire, structural blazes in our towns seem like wildly random bolts of ill fate shot from a cloudless blue. We received an unnervingly large taste of that a couple of weeks ago: a big old brick building adjoining other such structures in downtown Wallowa inexplicably caught fire, threatening an entire historic block. The ensuing firefight, difficult and dangerous, drew assets from five area agencies and one fortuitously positioned construction contractor, whose equipment-operating skills were put to the supreme test.

In the end, it all worked out, but the Wallowa fire also served to remind us how critical it is to respond with adequate resources. The night of July 30, Wallowa fire captain Travis Goebel had to arrange for an increased flow of ditch water, underscoring the inadequacy of what could at that moment be delivered through hydrants alone.

A project to significantly upgrade parts of the City of Wallowa’s water system – already well underway at the time of the July 30 fire downtown – should help reduce Wallowa’s vulnerability to running short of water in future firefights.

In Enterprise, meanwhile, city leaders are currently trying to muster more public support for similar system improvements. Back in 2007, a firefight in downtown Enterprise – at the Hackbarth Building on North River Street – came uncomfortably close to exhausting the supply of available water.

Enterprise residents would do well to give the 2007 event and Wallowa’s experiences last month some serious thought when weighing the system upgrade’s benefits against its cost.

–RCR

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