Baltimore County man raises replica 1930s fire lookout tower in Oregon
Summer lightning knifes the forests in the dry wilderness of Northeast Oregon. It smolders in roots for hours, days, a week then pops: a flame.
In the Pacific Northwest, wildfire season bears down in July. Now a Baltimore County man who owns a cattle ranch in Oregon has revived a bygone tradition to defend his property.
Tim Roberts, who lives in Sparks, hired Maryland cabinetmakers to build a replica 1930s fire lookout tower. He hauled the cabin across the country in a 26 foot Penske truck. Now he’s raising it four stories by crane, to look mountaintops in the eye and spot smoke.
“When you light a match, the fire’s almost doubling in size every second,” said Roberts, 49. “So the quicker you can get on the smoke, it’s a big deal.”
Sallie Keeling had seen enough photos of destruction over four days to know what to expect when she returned Monday to the fire ravaged neighborhood where she and her husband had lived for 13 years.
“There’s nothing,” she said, covered in soot after digging through the rubble. “Just ashes.”(Tribune news services)
His family bought the 12,000 acre Fence Creek Ranch about a decade ago. Summers, they return Tim, his wife, Nancy, and their children, 15 year old Will and 12 year old Laura to ride horses and river rapids and to drive cattle.
Roberts has worked for AmeriCorps and the Maryland Park Service. He manages the family properties now.
Nancy’s family owns farms in Virginia and Maryland, including Worthington Farms, home of the Maryland Hunt Cup steeplechase race.
“Being from the East Coast, you don’t realize the threat of dry lightning,” she said.
After a strike, days may pass before the embers, like discarded cigarettes, catch and run.
“The longest holdover that I’ve heard, I think we had 20, 21 days after the storm,” Tim Roberts said.
He formed the Fence Creek crew, some ranch hands turned firefighters in summer men equipped with certification and a Ford F 550 with a 400 gallon tank. Contracted by Oregon’s Department of Forestry, the crew often arrives first at a rural blaze to cut containment lines.
“A lot of times, they’re probably an hour or more ahead of our engine,” said Matt Howard, a state forester in Wallowa County. “This isn’t a hillbilly outfit. This is a professional crew that takes its training seriously.”
Now the crew prepares for another fierce summer, but with a new tool to defend the prairie and town of Imnaha. On a remote ridge, a spine of land between prairie grass and matchstick timber, Tim Roberts and workers are raising a steel tower. Soon, they’ll hoist a cabin with 19 handmade windows.
They’re behind schedule, and hurrying.
The fires are coming.
‘We don’t know what normal is anymore’
A prairie wildfire can outrun a man. The grass fed flames can rise above his head. Old timber, meanwhile, may burn for a week. “Hundred hour fuel,” Tim Roberts calls it.
“You pour 4,000 gallons down a stump hole and it steams and you’re coming back day after day after day,” he said.
Roberts says misguided firefighting tactics a century ago have transformed the Pacific Northwest into a tinderbox escalating the duration and intensity of wildfire seasons today.
It began after the “Big Blowup” of 1910, a series of fires that torched an area the size of Connecticut, killed at least 85 people and flung soot to Greenland.
“There was kind of a reaction: ‘We got to protect these forests,'” Tim Roberts said. “Any time we saw smoke, we went and put it out. We’ve done that for the past 100 years. And what’s happened now is we have a buildup of fuel in the forests.”
The woods exploded in summer 2013, Oregon’s worst wildfire season since the 1950s. Lightning ignited about 500 fires. More than 350,000 acres burned on state and federal lands.
In Southwest Oregon that summer, crews glimpsed the phenomenon of a fire whirl, a burning tornado lifting skyward smoke and flames and debris.
“Buildup is a big, big concern,” said Keith Argow, a former ranger and forestry professor at North Carolina State and Virginia Tech.
Summer fires remain a persistent threat in Wallowa County. Flames once crept 300 yards from Sandy Vidan’s bed and breakfast, the Imnaha River Inn, she said. Firefighters camped in her backyard. She patrolled her beds of snap dragons, lilies and tulips, amid a snowfall of burning cinder, and soaked the bark mulch.