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Cove Palisades park boss defends staff in wildfire’s wake

KTVZ

The 280-acre Cove Fire that broke out Saturday at Cove Palisades State Park, destroyed two homes and prompted evacuations neared full containment Monday. Meanwhile, a park official defended his staff after investigators determined the blaze began from improperly disposed of barbecue charcoal briquettes.

The fire was 84 percent contained by Monday morning, with crews continuing to mop up the interior and improve containment lines. BLM spokesoman Lisa Clark said Sunday night’s colder temperatures “really helped — they can make a lot of progress with lighter fuels like grass and sage when it’s cooler.”

Park Manager Dave Slaght told NewsChannel 21 Monday a park visitor or staff member may have disposed of barbecue charcoal not completely extinguished.

“We really don’t know who — you can make assumptions,” Slaght said. “I care for every one of my people, paid or non(-paid volunteers), so I don’t throw them under the bus – and I won’t. This case was – it was an accident.”

Oregon State Parks banned barbecues using charcoal briquettes Sunday throughout Cove Palisades State Park and took other steps to prevent occurrence.

The fire,, three miles northwest of Culver, “is expected to be fully contained later today (Monday),” the Oregon Department of Forestry reported .

State Parks spokesman Chris Havel said Sunday the incident at the Crooked River Campground prompted the charcoal briquettes ban across the park, for both camping and day-use facilities.

“While the cause was ruled accidental, the department is tightening the restrictions until conditions improve, and retraining its staff and volunteers to properly dispose of briquettes and when the campfire ban is lifted, how to handle other fires visitors don’t fully extinguish themselves,” a department statement said..

“Effective immediately, visitors may not burn charcoal briquettes at The Cove, and the disposal area will be permanently replaced by a metal container,” the agency added. “The briquette ban may extend to other parks in Central and Eastern Oregon. Larger parks have already upgraded their ash disposal areas, and others will follow suit.”

About 40 campers and 60 residents of a subdivision west of Culver were evacuated for hours as crews battled on the ground and from the air to stop the flames.

Fire crews from the Oregon Department of Forestry and Jefferson County Rural Fire Department No. 1 were assisted Sunday by crews from the BLM and Deschutes and Ochoco national forests. They were being loaned to the work, but if a new fire ignites elsewhere in the area, they will be released as initial attack resources.

Also, 40 inmates from the Deer Ridge Correctional Institution worked on the lines Sunday. Jefferson County structural engines were patrolling near homes in the fire area to ensure there’s no risk from the blaze, officials said.

The E Loop of the Crooked River Campground at Cove Palisades State Park remained closed Sunday, officials said, but other areas were open.

The fire was first spotted by area farmers around 10:30 a.m. Saturday and they took action to tackle it until firefighters arrived, officials said Saturday night.

“Investigators from Oregon State Police and the Oregon Department of Forestry determined the cause to be barbecue briquettes which were improperly disposed of,” a multi-agency news release stated.

“We believe that it did start in the campground,” Jefferson County Sheriff Jim Adkins told NewsChannel 21 late Saturday afternoon.

Adkins said the two homes burned by the blaze were unoccupied, and apparently at least one was a vacation home, “so nobody is homeless or displaced.”

The fire was contained by early evening, the sheriff said: “We have opened up the roads and people are headed back into the campgrounds and houses.”

No injuries were reported, officials said.

Clark said several outbuildings also were lost to the fire, which spread up the canyon to the rim and was pushed east through sagebrush, grass, juniper and dead vegetation.

Adkins later told NewsChannel 21 the fire apparently began in an area off the campground’s E loop, where there is a pit where people dump ashes from their barbecues.

While campfires are banned on public lands due to high fire danger, Oregon State Parks announced late last week its statewide campfire and open flame ban would remain in place for the coming week. Thursday’s update had noted that the ban “doesn’t apply to propane cooking stoves and/or charcoal briquettes for cooking.,” though it added that “there may be fire restrictions local to a specific area that do limit propane cooking stove and briquette use.”

Deputies tallying the losses said two homes on Southwest Kokanee Lane northwest of Culver were destroyed, along with four garage-type structures, two campers used as outbuildings and several buildings to house animals or chicken coops.

Despite predictions of winds gusting to 40 mph in the region, the speed of the fire took everyone by surprise.

“You’d never know it, but this was a full house with a garage,” John Patterson, the son of a Culver resident, said as he surveyed one of the destroyed homes on Kokanee Lane.

Culver resident Kandi Allen said, “It was at the bottom of the hill, and then at the top of the hill — and we feared for our friend’s home.”

“It’s very, very scary and emotional,” she said.

It all happened so fast, it took officials by surprise as well; Adkins said it exploded in size in “less than 20 minutes.”

Patterson said, “It came up and rose up high. It looked like two stories to me.”

Another Culver resident, Randy Casey, said there was little time to prepare.

“We had very few moments to get ready, and so we started wetting down the land behind the houses here.”

Firefighters were challenged by steep slopes out of the park, dry conditions and light, flashy fuels. The area received little or no rain Saturday, but the weather change brought winds gusting to about 40 mph.

By 7:30 p.m., officials said the winds had moderated, though crews were watching for any sparks that could cause the blaze to take off in light fuels outside the fire lines.

Resources sent by COIDC on Saturday included 10 engines, two air tankers, two helicopters (including one loaned from Warm Springs), two hand crews and a water tender. Two structure -protection task forces were called in from Jefferson, Deschutes and Crook counties to protect homes in the area.

The planes were called in to drop retardant and help stop the advancing flames. By around 2:45 p.m., authorities said the fire was looking better, after the two vacation homes burned and a close call for others in a small subdivision west of Culver.

The American Red Cross said it was notified around 12:30 p.m. of the fire and evacuations and opened a shelter at the Culver HS gym for about an hour, until evacuation levels dropped and residents were able to return home.

Evacuations took place along Jordan Road, and areas west of Feather Drive.

Camper Slone Pearson said her family was evacuated from Loop E in the campground and later from the road above the cliff when the fire jumped the road.

“We saw smoke and 30 seconds later flames, grabbed the kids and jumped in the car, leaving everything behind,” Pearson said as they waited at Haystack Reservoir for the okay to get their belongings.

“Many thanks to the fire crew! This one is moving very fast!” she added in an e-mail.

Nikki Schaumberg, a resident of nearby Three Rivers, said they were heading home and saw the fire “supposedly started by a campfire blew up within 10 minutes and crossed the road. The high winds blew it up really quickly.”

“I’ve never seen a fire travel so quickly,” she said. “I’ve lived in town my whole entire life. It breaks my heart to see people losing homes.”

NewsChannel 21 has crews on the scene and will have updates through the day and tonight on our 6 p.m. news, which will air on Fox due to pre-season football on NBC.

The winds also caused other issues, including a power outage for about 1,700 Midstate Electric Cooperative members from Sunriver south for over an hour Saturday morning.

The fire dispatch center said the Culver area blaze was another reminder that despite some cooler weather, “fire conditions in Central Oregon remain extreme.”

“Even in areas that received rain from the storm that passed through, the area remain dry,” the statement said. “With hunting season beginning, and many people still out camping, fire officials want to remind everyone that campfires are prohibited on lands protected by the Deschutes and Ochoco National Forests, Prineville BLM, Oregon Department of Forestry, and Oregon State Parks.”

KTVZ News Team

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