June 5, 2007

Crooked Fire prompts access talks

Last week’s wildfire at Crooked River Ranch reminded residents that the community is severely limited in its transportation choices --- there’s only one way in and one way out.

The Crooked Fire burned 300 acres in the Deschutes County portion of the Ranch May 31 after remains of a burn pile flared up and quickly spread out of control. Officials advised residents of about 100 homes to evacuate. The fire was partially contained that evening and was declared fully contained over the weekend.

Following an investigation by the State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office, ranch resident Lane Ball, 52, was cited for reckless burning, a Class A misdemeanor. According to investigators, Balls burned debris on his property during the morning and thought he had put out the fire. He left the debris unattended and the fire flared up.

Crooked River Ranch lies on a triangle of land between the deep gorges of the Deschutes and Crooked rivers to the west and east. The only official access to the ranch is on the south end at 43rd Street off Lower Bridge Way.

There is a second southern access, but it is an unimproved dirt road that crosses Bureau of Land Management property and comes out on Lower Bridge Road near the Deschutes River. Many times it’s impassable by passenger cars and not suitable for people pulling trailers, said Frank Ferraro, vice president of the Ranch’s board of directors. “And in this case the fire was in that area. If the fire had spread east, it would have blocked main access road as well.”

With smoke from the fire visible for miles traffic became a problem as residents tried to get home to retrieve animals and belongings and others tried to get a view of the fire.

“The limited ingress/egress is a problem,” said Deschutes County Sheriff Larry Blanton. “It was compounded with so much traffic, and probably most were not residents, (they were) just people wanting to see the fire.”

The heavy traffic caused problems with getting equipment in over already narrow country roads, Blanton said. Many CRR residents ended up in vehicles backed up to Highway 97 trying to get home to get animals out, and in many cases tempers flared.

A second exit has been talked about for several years, but not seriously recently, Ferraro said, but he’s confident that will change in light of the recent fire.

A second entrance/exit is “certainly something that’s needed,” said George Trahern, treasurer of the ranch’s board. “We’re aware that we need one, but it’s something that’s not going to happen overnight.”

Trahern said he was encouraged to see that State Rep John Dallum, R-The Dalles, who represents the area, is making a last minute push in the Legislature to include a bridge to state highway projects list.

Dallum suggested that the best route would pave Horny Hollow Trail and build a bridge to connect with Opal Springs Road.

Ferraro concurs.

“The obvious route for a second access would be down Horny Hollow, which goes to the grasslands and if you continue to hike down that way you would get to Lake Billy Chinook,” he explained. “It would give us both north and south entrances. But getting the dollars and getting high priority is the problem.”

“(A bridge) is such an expensive project that we can’t afford it,” said Trahern, who put the price at “multi-million dollars” including the roads to reach a bridge.

Jefferson County’s draft Transportation System Plan identifies the need for about $150,000 to conduct a feasibility study of options for a northern exit, said Jim Bryant, Oregon Department of Transportation senior planner, who has been working on the plan with Jefferson County officials. The feasibility study would help estimate costs for constructing the different options.

Any improvements that involve a bridge would be very expensive, Bryant added.

Neither Ferraro nor Trahern lives in the area of the fire. Both live farther north.

While his home wasn’t threatened, Trahern, who lives about a half mile into Jefferson County, used the fire as a drill and made sure he could get his vehicle ready to tow in an emergency.

Frank Ferraro anticipates that the subject will be talked about at the board’s next meeting on June 18.

“It’s a high priority for the ranch. It gets talked about, but nothing gets done,” Ferraro said.

He hopes the current interest in building a second entrance/exit would be not just because of the fire, but because it’s needed, and that something gets done this time.

“People would be pretty stranded if something happened on the south end,” he said.

-- by Trish Pinkerton

James Sinks of Wescom News Service contributed to this report

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