Similar fires, different outcomes

Comparing the Two Bulls and Awbrey Hall fires

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

Two wildfires that turned the sky to dusk. Two swaths of forest left blackened. And two very different outcomes when it comes to homes lost.

On a map, it’s easy to see the similarities in the 6,908-acre Two Bulls Fire that started last weekend northwest of Bend and the 3,350-acre Awbrey Hall Fire in August 1990. Both fires made fast six-mile charges during their first day.

“If you look at the fire scars of the two fires they are just eerily similar in nature,” said Bend Fire Chief Larry Langston .

While the Two Bulls Fire prompted the evacuation of nearly 200 homes, all are still standing as firefighting winds down this weekend. The Awbrey Hall Fire, which burned closer to Bend, caused the evacuation of 2,500 homes and leveled 22 of them . Officials say the different outcomes of the blazes highlight changes in the past 24 years, from better communication among fire agencies to more thinning of small trees and underbrush around homes.

“We’ve made huge strides since (the Awbrey Hall) fire,” said Link Smith, the Oregon Department of Forestry’s deputy incident commander for the Two Bulls Fire.

Key among them is more coordination between fire crews working to stop Two Bulls in the forest and firefighters trying to protect homes and other structures in town.

“We were really two organizations that didn’t function well together (in 1990),” Smith said.

Langston echoed Smith’s thoughts. Today, he said, wildland and city fire crews in Central Oregon work better together in part because they adopted a command system that blends their missions. Their commanders work in concert, their radios connect and they train together.

“It’s faster and it’s certainly more effective,” he said.

The command system was first used in California, where windblown fires can spread quickly from wildland to cities, Langston said. It’s also the management format implemented by disaster teams responding to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

Just as firefighters’ response to wildfire is different now than in 1990, so too is the state of the woods just outside Bend different and the style of homes found there.

Smith said there is now more of an emphasis on wildfire prevention and thinning. Builders also don’t install shake roofs on homes as they did 24 years ago. The material proved to be fire-prone.

Overgrown vegetation and shake roofs were problems in the Awbrey Hall Fire, Smith said.

“Awbrey Hall had homes we couldn’t save — bottom line,” he said.

Project Wildfire, an organization created by Deschutes County in 2005 that focuses on education and wildfire prevention, has been leading thinning projects around Bend. Areas where firefighters were able to stop the Two Bulls Fire from spreading toward the city had been thinned in recent years, Langston said. “That really saved the day,” he said.

While the Two Bulls Fire occurred in June and the Awbrey Hall Fire burned in August, weather conditions during the two blazes were similar — hot and dry.

“(The Two Bulls Fire) was a hot fire and it burned with an intensity that we don’t typically see in June,” said Doug Decker, head of the state Forestry Department .

Both fires burned most intensely in their first day — both Saturdays — with the Awbrey Hall Fire particularly active for a wildfire over its first night. It started shortly after 3 p.m. on Aug. 4, 1990. A 1993 National Weather Service report shows all 22 homes burned between 9 p.m. that day and 3 a.m. Aug. 5, 1990. The fire even jumped the Deschutes River as it tore through homes on both sides of the water.

Both fires appear to be human-caused. Six years after the Awbrey Hall Fire, investigators with the Central Oregon Arson Task Force arrested Aaron Douglas Groshong, a Bend man, firefighter and owner of Wildcat Firefighting Service, on charges of starting the blaze and seven other fires. Groshong was convicted on a count involving one of the other fires, served a year and a half in prison and was then on parole for three years.

The cause of the Two Bulls Fire is under investigation. Deschutes County Sheriff Larry Blanton said last week the fire, which began shortly before 1 p.m. June 7 as two fires and merged into one, was human-caused, suspicious and potentially arson.

However it started, Langston and Smith were glad to see that no homes burned, unlike in the Awbrey Hall Fire.

“What you saw here was an example of a very similar event with a totally different outcome,” Smith said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com