Recent Miller Homestead Fire prompts discussion on disaster preparedness
By Jennifer Jenks
An annual “grass bank” is likely in Harney County’s future. The idea is to have a repository of available pasture in a central location to be accessible for emergency use in case of another disaster like the Miller Homestead fire.
Harney County Stockgrowers President Travis Williams and member John Witzel spoke with members of the Harney County Court last Wednesday, Aug. 1, to try to figure out better ways of dealing with disasters in the future.
Williams and Witzel came to the court with the intention of setting up a committee to help get information out to ranchers and landowners on disaster assistance and help with the communication difficulties they said exists between landowners and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). However, the court said that was basically what the recently formed RESTOR is already trying to accomplish.
Commissioner Dan Nichols noted how slowly government works, with all the red tape it has to go through to get anything accomplished. The private sector can get things accomplished a lot quicker, he said, but then it becomes a business agreement between two people. “These situations need an immediate response,” Nichols said, “and government just can’t provide that.” Nichols added he thought the government had done a very admirable job doing what it had done in response to this disaster.
Judge Steve Grasty pointed out that even local government does not move very fast, citing as an example a request to the state he made asking for funding to hire an excavator to bury cattle killed in the fire. The state’s response was to say they would load an excavator on a lowboy and send it over to Harney County from the capital. Grasty told them it would cost more in gas to do that than to hire someone locally, and was able to come up with enough local funding to hire an excavator to do the job.
Witzel then brought up the idea of having a database of forage available in case of future emergencies. Any pasture that has not been used for the season (public or private) or that has only been partly grazed would be added to the database by the owner (voluntarily), so those affected by future emergencies would immediately know what was available.
The court agreed this was an excellent idea, and the group decided the extension office was probably the most centrally located place for the repository.
Witzel stated he believed the BLM should be responsible for the costs of the damage the fire caused since it was their fault the fire got out of control. He argued that the BLM used to put fires out right away, but now they take advantage of natural firestarts and just let the fires burn. He alleged the BLM had sent people home who had showed up to help fight the fire, had threatened to arrest him if he tried to help put out the fire and also that the BLM had started the part of the fire that ended up burning out of control.
“In the setting of this court,” Grasty replied, “I don’t agree with everything you say.” He stated it was unfair to “beat up” an agency like Witzel was doing and noted not only has the BLM lost young people to fires, we have lost local youth to fires, as well, and that the BLM is now gun-shy about risking firefighters’ lives to protect property.
Witzel argued that it was not fair to risk other peoples’ lives to save some firefighters either.
Grasty stated there was an opportunity for Frenchglen to form a rangeland fire protection district. There is plenty of equipment available at no cost to Frenchglen, and the training would be provided; they would just need about four to six people to commit to the program. “I’ve had stakeholders come in here and say ‘I could have done a better job,’ ” Grasty said, “and I say, here’s your opportunity.” Williams and Witzel agreed to look into it.
Emergency Management Coordinator Tom Sharp updated the court on Harney County Emergency Preparedness.
At the July 24 meeting of the County Fire Defense Board – a group that includes members of local volunteer fire departments, rangeland fire protection districts, the tribe and the state fire marshal – discussed fire protection areas and mitigation. They focused mainly on “unprotected” areas of the county that aren’t covered by any of the agencies and how to mitigate that.
Grasty noted the Burns fire chief had expressed concern during the Miller Homestead fire because there were only nine volunteer firefighters left in town, and if there had been a grass fire, they would not have been able to respond without leaving the Burns and Hines communities with no protection.
Another area of vulnerability that was discussed at the meeting was hazardous materials. Sharp said we have teams in Harney County that can contain a hazardous material incident, but none that are trained to do anything about it. The nearest HazMat team is in Ontario. Sharp said they had come up with a Homeland Security grant option that could help address this vulnerability and they had applied for the grant, which would enable them to do a planning project to assess where Harney County is today in terms of capabilities and preparedness to identify gaps between where we are and where we should be. They should know if they got the grant, which is for $15,000, sometime in November.
Finally, Sharp stated they found out the county health department had leftover funds for emergency preparedness that would be lost if they did not get used this year. He said they discussed several options and finally came up with the “Emergency Preparedness Radio Equipment Project.” The project will provide tactical field radio communications equipment consignment capability for shelter centers, Point of Dispensing Sites and Search and Rescue.
They will be set up with six radios on the ground, Sharp said, and the radios would also work with the sheriff’s radio bands. “It won’t completely fill the need,” Grasty commented, “but it’s better than we had before.”
In other business:
• Kate Marsh presented the court with an updated Economic Strategic Plan document. Judge Grasty expressed concern that there seemed to be a lot of negative comments scattered throughout, and he thought it should be more optimistic. Commissioner Nichols, however, argued that the plan should be as honest as possible. “Sometimes you’ve got to call a spade a spade to buck up and do what needs to be done,” he said. “Sometimes we get too correct and too positive to relate the true problems. We do have difficulties here, it’s a given, it’s a reality in this community.” Marsh said she would like comments on the updated plan by Aug. 17.
• the court signed and adopted Ordinance No. 2012-70, Amending the Harney County Zoning Ordinance Section 9.030 and 9.040 to Update Appeal Procedures;
• the court signed and adopted Ordinance No. 2012-71, Referring to the Voters the Question of Whether the Offices of County Commissioner should become Nonpartisan beginning with the Primary Election of May 2014;
• the final order on the Diamond Valley Ranch farm dwelling remand was signed, with McMullen noting that the original decision did include conditions. A hard copy will be available for the public at the planning office for a reasonable period of time. Commissioner Pete Runnels recused himself from discussion on and signing of the final order;
• Judge Grasty announced that Dr. Tom Fitzpatrick had stepped down as hospice medical director, after serving in that capacity for many years. Dr. Sharon King would like to take on the position, and the court will get a contract ready for the next court meeting to hire her as medical director;
• the court read correspondence, including letters from the governor. Grasty expressed concern with how much the governor emphasized the sage grouse issue in regards to the recent wildfire. Nichols noted that people’s hands are tied from regulations and litigations and those issues needed to be addressed. A letter from Representative Cliff Bentz brought up what he believed to be a safety issue concerning the sudden ending of the pavement on East Steens Road. Grasty noted there were already two signs up warning the pavement was about to end and they were in the process of putting signs up on the other side of the road as well, as one of the arguments is that people are too busy looking at Steens Mountain on the other side of the road to pay attention to the signs that are already there;
• Fizzle Flat publisher Barbara Cannady told the court one of her readers had asked for an update on the wind project. Judge Grasty explained that, as best he can understand, nothing will happen with the project until the lawsuit moves forward.
The next county court meeting will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 15, in Judge Grasty’s office at the courthouse.