The Chehalem Mountain-Bald Peak fire is no longer an orange blaze on Newberg's horizon, nor is it coughing up thick clouds of black smoke, but it remains a priority for firefighters in the weeks after its full containment.
A few dozen firefighters have been continually doing mop-up duty on the smoldering mountain along the border of Washington and Yamhill counties, keeping an eye out for hot spots and getting at the fire's lingering roots.
"We still have crews working and we will for another week or so," Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue spokeswoman Cassandra Ulven said on Tuesday, Sept. 29. "We have obviously scaled down quite a bit, but there's still some stumps and some underground areas that can burn in root systems and underground for a long time. It can take up to 1,000 hours of pretty consistent rain to totally rid the area of those risks."
TVF&R firefighters worked alongside officials from the Oregon Department of Forestry to fell unstable trees and clear the area of stumps, roots and other debris that could catch fire in the aftermath. The work has been constant, even after the blaze reached 100 percent containment and residents were allowed return to their homes.
Fires can spark back up months after they've been contained if the hot spots, stumps and undergrowth are not properly addressed and managed. That requires vigilance on the part of fire officials and residents.
"We basically have two, 12-hour shifts per day to work through the area and do the mop-up and keep an eye on things," Ulven said. "We've had crews referred to specific areas with hot spots as well reported by residents of the mountain. We want them to call if they see something burning, not just if it's smoldering, because that can happen for more than a month. If they do call in, crews are on it quick."
No homes were burned by the 875-acre fire, but three barns, two outbuildings and one cargo trailer fell victim to the flames. No people or animals were harmed, according to TVF&R, and some vehicles may have been damaged as well but were not included in the agency's structural audit.
"Folks are responsible for their own insurance in terms of damage from the fire, and state emergency funds aren't really accessible if there isn't a loss of or significant damage to a home," Ulven said. "It's much different than other areas of the state where homes and buildings were leveled from these massive fires. We were able to avoid the loss of homes and life which is a tremendous accomplishment on the part of the crews who fought this fire."
The terrain and topography of Chehalem Mountain didn't make things easy. Steep hills lined with plenty of trees and brush made it difficult to fight the fire, and narrow roads were difficult for fire trucks to traverse. This was also the largest fire Ulven said she has seen in the past two decades, at least in TVF&R's service area.
The cause of the fire may prove to be a cautionary tale for those who choose to burn on their property.
"The fire was deemed accidental by an improperly extinguished campfire, and nobody is going to face any legal ramifications or anything," Ulven said. "The investigators have had a lot of conversations with the people in the area. We get a lot of burn complaints from people in our service area with regularity, and it's not uncommon for people to have burn piles when they aren't supposed to. This was an unusual weather event that created the circumstances for this fire as well."
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