Agency blames 'human error' for not getting jump on forest fire

Agency blames 'human error' for not getting jump on forest fire
Burnout near Three Creek Meadow. Photo courtesy Tom Iraci.

BEND, Ore. (AP) — William and Leigh Kuhn once earned a stuffed Smokey Bear for their prompt calls to report forest fires. They've also lost a house to wildfire, so they were unhappy when their report at 6:30 a.m. on Sept. 9 about a wisp of smoke in the Deschutes National Forest didn't generate the urgency they thought was called for.

The forest supervisor now calls it "human error" that kept his agency from getting a jump on the Pole Creek Fire that turned into the largest of the summer in Central Oregon.

It spread to 40 square miles, drove 30 hikers and campers out of the woods, triggered evacuation warnings for homeowners near Sisters, destroyed four vehicles at a trailhead and sent thick smoke into the region that hovered during many mornings at unhealthy levels.

Now, there's a question whether the fire could have been kept smaller with a quick response, the Bend Bulletin reported.

Firefighting efforts didn't get under way until nearly three hours after Leigh Kuhn saw the smoke and William Kuhn placed the call.

"The call was taken and then there was a shift change and some other fire incidents that appeared to have more urgency kind of took over the dispatch center, and so this Pole Creek smoke that was called in wasn't responded on in as timely of a way as it could have been," Forest Supervisor John Allen said. "That's the human error."

Forest Service responses to Freedom of Information Act requests by The Bulletin revealed that the dispatch center made no notes from the call.

The audio system used to record calls into the dispatch center had been broken for a year and a half, so no recording of the call was made, Deschutes National Forest spokeswoman Jean Nelson-Dean said.

Allen denied requests by The Bulletin to speak with dispatch center managers. He also declined to identify the dispatcher.

The Kuhns have a view of the Three Sisters mountains. They lost their previous home in a 1990 fire named Awbrey Hall.

William Kuhn said he told the dispatcher the fire appeared to be starting between Melvin Butte and North Sister. But Kuhn said the dispatcher "wasn't with it" and not interested in the call. He said he tried to remain polite but insistent and has to wonder "why didn't they get on it?"

Firefighters learned about the fire around 9:20 a.m. when a lookout headed to work also spotted smoke, said District Ranger Kristie Miller of the Sisters district.

Forest Service lookouts and firefighters don't typically start work during the fire season in Central Oregon until 9:30 a.m., she said.

"Fires don't usually start popping up until the afternoon, when it gets hot," Miller said.

Dave Robertson, the summer's fire management officer for the Sisters District, heard the radio traffic and called about 9:45 a.m. to offer his help. Forty-five minutes later, he became the first firefighter on scene.

Robertson caught glimpses of the smoke as he drove to the fire. "It was just kind of a smudge of smoke," he said.

Once he arrived, though, the fire "started to really pick up quick," he said, fueled by a large amount of dead wood and other vegetation. He called for a helicopter, and a smokejumper plane circled the fire area. But it was too windy to drop firefighters.

The mayor of Sisters, which was frequently under advisories about poor air quality from the smoke, said the mistake was expensive.

"The fact of the matter is the sooner you get on the fire, the better off you are," Lon Kellstrom said.

Even if firefighters had received the initial report, they would have had to come into work early to respond. Allen said their arrival at the fire was delayed by about only an hour and a half.

He said he couldn't say with any confidence that a quicker response would have changed the result.

"It would be speculation on my part," Allen said. "I have been around a lot of fire in my life, and it is not very productive to speculate."