Residents watch, wait as fire nears containment

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: July 10. 2007 5:00AM PST

JUNIPER ACRES — As the Millican East Fire south of Prineville continued to burn Monday in another day of scorching High Desert heat, residents of the nearby Juniper Acres neighborhood kept a wary and watchful eye on the blaze.

The nearly horizontal line of fire was visible from most areas of the “sagebrush subdivision” about 25 miles south of Prineville, and a plane dropped bright-red plumes of flame retardant on the flames at midday Monday.

The houses in Juniper Acres, which are only accessible via rough dirt roads, are not covered by any fire district, Crook County Fire and Rescue Chief Bob Schnoor said.

That is one of the reasons that Crook County has limited development in the area to 150 structures overall and only issues 10 building permits a year, county officials have said in the past. Juniper Acres does not have any municipal power, water or sewer lines, so most residents use solar panels or wind generators and truck in water in tanks.

The dangerous and remote conditions may have made some residents nervous Sunday evening. Grant Kemp, emergency operations manager for the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center, said that a few people decided to leave, even though the agency had not recommended evacuating.

“It was nothing that we initiated,” Kemp said. “There was no coordination with the sheriff, who usually initiates these things — they just felt a little bit threatened so they evacuated.”

As of 5 p.m. Monday, the fire was about 2,600 acres in size and 80 percent contained, Kemp said. It was burning mainly on BLM land and did not appear to be moving toward any houses, he said.

One Juniper Acres resident, Dana Howell, stood on her door stoop Monday surveying the hazy smoke rising on a butte to the south. Howell’s driveway featured an older Ford fire truck that could be called into service if the Millican East Fire starts threatening structures.

Howell, who is originally from Bend and lives in Juniper Acres with her husband and son, said she does not intend to evacuate unless an official order goes out to do so.

“We’re watching it and, yeah, we’re concerned about it,” she said. “I can’t speak for everybody else, but a lot of people are just sticking it out.”

One problem in a potential evacuation could be the number of cars suddenly pushed onto the main entrance-and-exit road for the neighborhood, Cascade Way.

It is unclear how many people live in Juniper Acres because of the number of illegal structures, but Planning Director Bill Zelenka estimated that there are about 100 legal and illegal homes on the subdivision’s 500 10-acre parcels.

Zelenka said that, since the fire started, he has received an e-mail from one Juniper Acres resident saying that “this points out that we need to have that access.”

Another resident, Lee Smock, agreed that the condition of Cascade Way raises concern about what would happen in the event of an evacuation. In January, Crook County set up a task force to analyze a number of issues in Juniper Acres — including the roads, emergency access and the cap on building permits — and Lee Smock is one of the resident representatives who sits on the committee.

Smock said that Juniper Acres is bordered on the west side by Bureau of Land Management property and on the east side by private land, which makes negotiating for another road difficult. He added that one of the local roads, Maple Lane, offers another evacuation route, but it is only a dirt track and could be closed depending on the location of the fire.

Smock said he did not know of anyone who had evacuated because of the Millican East Fire.

“I know that there were a few people way down on the south end there on Walnut (Lane) that were very concerned,” he said. “You could just barely see it coming over west of the butte, and I estimated probably four or five miles away, but the thing is with a good wind, why, it could be in Juniper Acres pretty quick. But as far as I know, no one really packed up a bunch of stuff and left.”

Smock said he thinks an evacuation would result in a “bottleneck” and “traffic jams” on Cascade Way. He added that some people who have their own firefighting equipment would probably stay to try to protect the houses. Some residents are trying to form a rangeland fire protection association, which would be managed by the local property owners in cooperation with the Oregon Department of Forestry, Smock said.

Schnoor, the fire chief, said that Crook County has one main fire district, which covers Prineville, Juniper Canyon and Powell Butte.

Juniper Acres is not included in the district because of its distance from Prineville.

If the Millican East Fire, which is currently mostly in Deschutes County, advances into Crook, Schnoor said the BLM would still be in charge of the fire and could request additional resources from Crook County Fire and Rescue. For now, Schnoor said, Juniper Acres residents should continue to take a “wait and see” approach to the fire.

“They should probably wait until they get official notice from the emergency manager of Crook County (before evacuating),” he said.

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