Fire Chief Reflects on Massive Effort to Battle Hat Rock Fire

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As many as 75 firefighters from agencies around the state helped battle the Hat Rock Fire that broke out Tuesday, June 13. (Photos courtesy of Umatilla County Fire District #1)

Scott Stanton knew the moment when last week’s Hat Rock Fire got away from the many dozens of firefighters battling the massive blaze.

Early on, Stanton thought there was a chance to keep the fire contained.

“We have an opportunity to catch this fire, but it was burning pretty good and burning pretty fast,” said Stanton, the fire chief for Umatilla County Fire District #1. “We were holding our own until it jumped Highway 730 by the Sand Station. That’s when I knew it was too late.”

Stanton said the first call came in at 10:54 a.m. on Tuesday, June 13. By the time the fire was finally extinguished it had burned 16,816 acres.

Umatilla County Fire District #1 Chief Scott Stanton at the scene of last week’s fire.

Large fires at Hat Rock State Park are not uncommon. Stanton said they battle a huge fire out there about every third year.

Last week’s was made more difficult because of the strong winds that persisted for several days last week.

“Wind is our worst adversary,” he said. “You don’t have enough people to contain a wind-driven fire before it gets out of control.”

Like most fire agencies, UCFD #1 isn’t big enough to fight a fire that big alone.

“The problem is you can’t get enough resources out there fast enough,” he said. It can take a half hour or more for outside agencies to arrive at the scene once they get the call for mutual aid. The further away a fire department is from the fire, the longer it takes to provide needed assistance.

UCFD #1 sent out calls for mutual aid to 15 nearby outside agencies. That quickly proved to be insufficient. On the evening of June 13, Gov. Tina Kotek declared a conflagration, mobilizing the Oregon State Fire Marshal Green Incident Management Team and six task forces from Clackamas, Lane, Linn, Marion, Multnomah and Yamhill counties.

Everyone was needed, Stanton said.

As bad luck would have it, another massive fire – the Mount Hebron Fire in Pendleton – broke out that same day.

Before it did, however, Stanton called for and received mutual aid from Pendleton in the form of three trucks. Once the Mount Hebron Fire ignited, they were immediately called back to Pendleton.

Stanton said the fire district was on guard last Tuesday as the National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning due to high winds and other conditions that contributed to rapid fire growth.

The fire chief said there was a long period last Tuesday when the wind blew steady at 24 mph. Gusts hit as high as 50 mph.

“At one point we had a plane available, but by that time it was too windy to fly it,” Stanton said. “If there wasn’t any wind, it would have never got out of control.”

When it was all over, the Hat Rock Fire burned nearly 17,000 acres.

After Kotek declared a conflagration, dozens more fire departments and districts from around the state arrived on the scene to join the battle.

“When you exhaust all of your resources, that’s when you call the State Fire Marshal,” Stanton said.

As many as 75 firefighters from around the state were battling the wildfire. The Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office and the Oregon State Police arrived on scene to help with traffic control and closing Highway 730.

Stanton said UCFD #1 had five command vehicles on scene, six engines and four water tenders.

Resources from outside mutual aid included 19 engines, four water tenders, a command vehicle, a helicopter and a hand crew from the U.S. Forest Service. Stanton said the helicopter remained grounded due to high winds.

A big focus during the wildfire was protecting Hat Rock homes and structures, as well as power lines.

“I don’t think we lost any power lines during the fire,” the fire chief said. No injuries were reported, and no structures were lost, although some railroad tracks were damaged.

“It could have been much worse in terms of losing structures,” Stanton said. “We were very lucky.”

Once the fire was essentially out, attention turned to patrolling, mopping up and putting out any hot spots.

Throughout the week, firefighters from outside the area camped out at Riverfront Park. Crews worked in 12-hour shifts during the week. By Friday, most of the outside agencies had gone back home.

A week later, Stanton’s work is still not done.

“I’m still writing up reports,” he said.

Stanton gave a big shout out to Umatilla County, the sheriff’s office, search and rescue, Bonneville Power Administration and Umatilla Electric Cooperative for their help during the fire.

His staff kept busy preparing food and working out the logistics.

“We could not have done this without the help and support of a lot of people,” he said. “It takes a full team.”

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