Thursday, July 24, 2008

"Fire!" is not a Range Command

Fire burns grass on Saddle Butte - Albany Democrat Herald

Mike McCarter reports that a bullet fired on the Albany Rifle &Pistol Club (ARPC) Main Range started a grass fire.

"... [W]e had a lot of excitement on Wednesday with the north end of Saddle Butte behind the 200 yard line going up in flames. Yes Martha, steel jacket - steel core can start fires. We had talked to the Brownsville Fire Department about a practice burn on the hill and they could not because of the proximity to I-5, well this took care of the issue. The fire departments did a heck of a job putting the fire out on steep ground and poison oak then got called back out after 5pm to put out a flare up.
It's July, the grass is dry, the bullets fly, the grass will fry!

(Sorry, I couldn't resist. It seemed so obvious.)

This is a situation which can happen at any shooting range. A steel-core bullet hit a rock downrange at a bench-rest area of the Club, and the resulting spark started a grass fire.

From what I read, the ARPC leadership had foreseen the problem and attempted to take preventative steps, but County government was unwilling to accommodate the entirely practical fire-prevention plan.

For those who didn't understand the "I-5" reference:
ARPC is located at "Saddle Butte", a small two-peaked butte or hill in the near vicinity of Shedd, Oregon, and just East of the Interstate 5 Freeway ("I-5"). The Freeway is perhaps 200 yards west of the range boundaries, and the are in question is on the West side of Saddle Butte. There is a nut-tree (Hazelnuts?) orchard between the freeway and the range. The Bench-Rest range is 50 yards East of the western range boundary, and as stated the fire started in grass another 200 yards away from the benches.

Add the dimensions and the dry-grass area was 450-500 yards East of the freeway. The prevailing wind in this area is West-to-East (explaining why I am so determined to emphasize the East vs West location of landmarks relative to the freeway), so the fire would have tended to spread East and up-hill on Saddle Butte, not West and down-hill, toward the freeway.

I seems to me that ARPC did just about everything 'right', and there was never any chance that a fire on the range would have threatened the freeway traffic.

Just to put things in perspective:
The area along the freeway (10 miles south of Albany, Oregon) has been one of the biggest producers of Grass Seed in the nation. For years, "Grass-seed Farmers" have grown their crops, reaped the seeds, mown the hay, and then burned the stubble to kill any weeks which may have been blown in from West. This produced tremendous volumes of billowing smoke during the post-harvest season (July through August).

Typically, every few years the smoke was so dense and low to the ground that driver visibility along that stretch of the I-5 Corridor was so obscured that horrendous traffic accidents occurred every few years. In my memory, it was not unusual for twenty to fifty cars would be involved in multiple compound pile-ups.

First one car would slow down because of the decreased visibility, then a car behind would run into the slower car. More cars would run into the wrecks ahead, and inevitably a few 18-wheelers would crush the wrecked cars ahead of them. Vehicles which were mercifully able to see the carnage ahead would veer wildly off the road ... often only to tip and roll because of the occasional steep banks off the shoulder of the freeway. At 70 miles an hour, it doesn't take much to roll a car ... much less a tractor-trailer rig.

Oregon State University "Crop Scientists" developed a machine which could be pulled behind a tractor and would dig the stubble and weeds from the soil and compact the plant material to pellets. This would then be sold as fuel for fireplaces and wood stoves. This became a preferred fuel, as Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) regulations restricted using wood products for fuel.

Thus field burning is rigidly restricted near the I-5 corridor, and is become increasingly restricted in other areas of the state. Which makes it only reasonable that the local fire departments are reluctant to authorize "Controlled Burns", even on the downwind side of the I-5 Corridor.

It was a crap shoot, and this time the DEQ came up snake-eyes. Accidents happen, and what they tried to prevent (field burning near I-5) by refusing to authorize a 'controlled burn' turned into an 'uncontrolled burn'.

Maybe they should have permitted the request from ARPC, who clearly had a much better understanding of the potential danger.

To paraphrase my own Geek Aphorism:
"It's better to do it, and not need it, than to need it, and not do it."

Maybe next year ....

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