Public safety — Rain storms neutralize fires near John Day before crews from Newberg, Lafayette, McMinnville and Dundee arrive

JOHN DAY, Ore. — In a rare occurrence, Mother Nature actually did Oregon firefighters a favor recently, putting out fires that threatened the city of John Day early in the morning of Aug. 9.

The Yamhill County Task Force, including crews from Dundee and Newberg, was called in by the state fire marshal and departed at 5 a.m., but were more than happy to learn en route that rain storms had already effectively neutralized the Grouse Mountain Complex fire.

The task force was told to continue on to the scene as a precaution and returned to Yamhill County Aug. 10.

“At about 2:30 that morning they had a major rain storm come through and basically put the fire out,” said volunteer Battalion Chief Gert Zoutendijk of the Newberg Fire Department, who led the taskforce. “When we got there, there was some smoke in all the black area, but nothing around the edges and nothing was threatening anymore. The reason they didn’t cancel us was because — when we were there we watched several lightning storms come through with major lightning hits — they weren’t sure what was going to happen.”

According to Zou­ten­dijk, local firefighters had been working Aug. 8 to put out blazes on the north and south sides of John Day, focusing their efforts on the larger one to the south. Wind had been pushing the northern fire away from town, but shifted at some point that day, prompting authorities to request assistance from the state.

Finding a rare stroke of luck during in what has been an already busy fire season, the rain came just in time, as Zoutendijk estimated that fire had been stopped about 200 meters from a subdivision on the northern edge of town.

“If it hadn’t rained I’m not sure we would have even been there on time,” he said. “It definitely would have been really hectic and they would have been in a world of hurt.”

The Yamhill task force hadn’t been called into service by the state since fighting a fire at the Warm Springs Indian Reservation northwest of Madras for five days in 2011. Dundee Fire Chief John Stock of the Yamhill County Fire Defense Board said he could remember only one time in his career when an assistance call had been so brief.

Zoutendijk, who has volunteered with the Newberg Fire De­part­ment for 14 years and earlier this year was promoted to fire marshal after 13 years serving with the Lake Oswego Fire De­part­ment, led a crew of 17 from Dun­dee, La­fayette, Mc­Minn­ville and New­berg utilizing two fire engines, two brush trucks and one water tender. He said he was pleased with the efficiency of the operation and its safe execution because, al­though the vehicles are designed to travel up and down hills while weighed down with water, “that’s not what we do every day.”

“It’s always a concern, especially in the back of your mind, when we just had a 19-year-old — even though it was a private contractor — at the Douglas complex, he rolled a tender and died,” Zoutendijk said. “It’s kind of in the back of your mind when you’re in charge of the big group that we don’t get injured or get in an accident. I was very pleased with the entire group, how we did and acted and that we got home safe.”

He added that even though the county task force has been called into action about every other year during his tenure, he wouldn’t be surprised if it was called into duty again this summer.

“This year we’ve had a few more conflagrations already, but unfortunately the season’s not over yet; it’s Oregon.” Zoutendijk said. “We’re hoping not to go again because that means someone else is having troubles, but we’re kind of expecting that we might get activated again.”

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