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In wake of 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, neighbors, officials focus on safety of Oxbow Regional Park on Sandy River

PMG PHOTO: SHANNON O. WELLS - Metro regional government issued a burn ban at Oxbow Regional Park along the Sandy River after a two-week stretch of unseasonably warm and sunny weather left local vegetation dry.Since 1974, Mike McKeel has enjoyed a panoramic view of the Sandy River Gorge — including a chunk of Oxbow Regional Park — from the back patio of his family's home.

For most of that time, he's associated the perpetually lush, postcard-perfect expanse with a sense of peace and natural Northwestern beauty.

But when the Eagle Creek Fire engulfed a swath of the nearby Columbia River Gorge in late summer 2017, his perception of that gorgeous Shangri-La started to change.

"I've lived here 45 years. I never thought I'd see a wildfire (like Eagle Creek)," McKeel says. "But it's a distinct possibility here. There's actually more fuel around that (Sandy River) canyon than in the Gorge."

McKeel is chairman of Multnomah Rural Fire Protection District 10, which works with District 1 serving Oxbow park's emergency needs.

"The big issue with Oxbow is there's one way in and one way out," he added. "If a fire started in that canyon, it would be a pretty big deal."

The deal would be the biggest in the event of a perfect-storm-type scenario at Oxbow, a 1,000-acre Metro-managed oasis eight miles east of downtown Gresham along the Sandy River:

It's a hot, windy, late summer weekend. Weeks of relentlessly sunny days have transformed park vegetation from its usual moss-covered fertility to a brittle, virtual tinderbox. An overbuilt campfire, stray cigarette, backfiring truck, or — as in the Eagle Creek wildfire — thoughtlessly tossed-off fireworks could be all it takes to set the Sandy River Gorge ablaze.

With as many as 3,000 visitors — campers, anglers, swimmers, picnickers, hikers, along with children and counselors at YMCA Camp Collins next door — sharing the narrow canyon, the need for a quick and safe evacuation is imminent.

However, a fallen tree, utility pole, vehicular mishap or the wildfire itself blocks the narrow, winding Oxbow Parkway, stranding drivers on the way out while hampering fire and emergency vehicles coming the opposite direction.

Communications from the park via cellphone, meanwhile, are sketchy at best, and the park's on-site water system may not be adequate enough to meet firefighters' needs.

"It could be a big mess if all the right things came together: high winds, low humidity, it's 100 degrees and someone's setting off fireworks," noted McKeel. "If Metro has the responsibility for operating (Oxbow), we have a responsibility as a fire district to be doing everything we should do as far as safety."

The likelihood of these events dovetailing may seem far fetched. However, Oxbow park's unique location and growing popularity, Oregon's increasingly hot, dry summers, and the still-fresh memories of Eagle Creek Fire devastation have raised new concerns about summer safety at the recreational area, prompting Metro and local fire districts to take a new look at emergency plans.

"It was definitely a wake-up call for everyone," said Monty Woods, Metro park operations manager, of the Eagle Creek Fire. "It provided an opportunity to reassess how we deal with these events, increase education and awareness — these kinds of things."

PMG PHOTO: SHANNON O. WELLS - Mike McKeel points toward the Sandy River from the patio behind his Hosner Terrace home. As chairman of Multnomah Rural Fire Protection District 10, McKeel is passionate about making sure Oxbow park is prepared for a potential wildfire.

'Ready to go'

After months of work and input from local residents and officials from Fire Districts 1 and 10, Metro has recalibrated and expanded a draft safety plan for Oxbow.

Based on National Emergency Management System (NEMS) standards, the Oxbow Regional Park Emergency Plan, an update of the existing Oxbow Emergency Plan is now PMG PHOTO: SHANNON O. WELLS - Oxbow Regional Park is nestled deep in the lush, evergreen-filled Sandy River Gorge. under review by Metro staff. Fire District 10 also will review what Metro Parks and Nature Superintendent Susan Baxter-Harwell calls a "fairly robust plan."

"The new plan is designed to document the procedures staff are already substantially following," she said.

Guidelines cover general emergency response and situation-specific responses regarding medical emergencies, lost persons, evacuation, wildfires, structure fires, and a complete communication plan. 

"The plan supports the NEMS structure to ensure clear communications from the top down so that (agencies can) respond effectively," Baxter-Harwell said. "After review, (Metro) staff will be trained on the new emergency plan."

Like all emergency response plans, she noted, this one is dynamic, and "improvements to response procedures are incorporated into the plan as needed."

PMG PHOTO: SHANNON O. WELLS - Monty Woods, park operations manager for Metro regional government, discusses emergency evacuation plans with Susan Baxter-Harwell, Metro's parks and nature superintendent on a recent morning at Oxbow park.   The fledgling outline reflects Metro and Oxbow officials' propensity to err on the side of caution. They did so during the Eagle Creek Fire, which a 15-year-old Washington boy started by throwing fireworks into Eagle Creek Canyon just west of Cascade Locks. When fire and law enforcement officials issued a Level 2 evacuation order for the Columbia River Gorge, Metro closed Oxbow park.

"If it ever goes to Level 2, we close the park and get ready to go," Baxter-Harwell said.

And two weeks ago, a burn ban was issued for Oxbow, but was lifted when May showers ended the stretch of dry, summer-like conditions earlier in the month.

Feeling safe

Scott Lewis is division chief of Gresham Fire and Emergency Services, which contracts with Fire District 10. He's confident Metro's updated emergency plan will effectively keep Oxbow, its visitors and staff safe in the event of wildfire or other potential catastrophe.

"We're involved and engaged, working with Metro as they develop the plan, which they will submit to us for review and comment," he noted. "(Baxter-Harwell) seems well engaged in the process."

Lewis, whose home is a 15 minute-drive from the Oxbow park entrance, called the Eagle Creek Fire an "eye opener" regarding forest fire safety in the nooks and crannies just beyond Gresham's borders.

"It got us to wake up and pay attention to (dangers) we have around here, including Metro (parks such as) Oxbow," he said.

Gresham Fire sends Station 76 crews to the park in early summer.

"They go down and familiarize themselves with whatever resources they have down there, the limited water supplies they can connect to," he said. "Those things, for a small fire and early response is great. For a big fire, with a delayed response, they would have to call for a lot of help."

PMG PHOTO: SHANNON O. WELLS - Monty Woods, park operations manager for Metro Regional Government, points out the complexities of wildfire evacuation plans on a large map of Oxbow Regional Park on the Sandy River. Charlie Ciecko, retired director of Multnomah County parks and Metro Parks and Greenspaces, is confident relationships between Metro and emergency responders are agile enough to handle foreseeable wildfire-related scenarios.

"Prior to the beginning of peak (fire) season, we will have a plan," he said. "I look forward to seeing that and having it implemented by summer. I think everyone is going to feel more comfortable about things."

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