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Reward in 3 possible arson fires hits $40,325

By Barney Lerten
Published On: Jun 07 2014 03:36:15 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 15 2014 02:03:56 PM CDT

More good news from the lines of the Two Bulls Fire -- but NewsChannel 21's Katie Higgins followed up on news that three blazes are now deemed suspicious and a reward fund is growing.

BEND, Ore. -

Private and public donations have pushed a reward fund to $40,325 as of Friday for information leading to suspects in three possible arson fires, two of which merged to become the Two Bulls Fire that threatened thousands of homes west of Bend, officials said.

"The fires are suspicious in nature, and the ongoing investigation indicates suspicion of potential arson," Sheriff Larry Blanton said in a statement issued Wednesday morning, the rest of which is below:

The Multi-Agency Investigation Team wants any information citizens can provide. Please call with any information about activity, individuals, or vehicles seen on Cascade Timberlands property in the days leading up to the fire.

After learning that the most recent fire, caught quickly south of Skyliners Road at a quarter-acre on Tuesday, also was determined to be suspicious, Sheriff Blanton and Deschutes County have added to the reward.

The sheriff and county have added $5,000 to the reward and the city of Bend also contributed $5,000. Taylor Northwest contributed $2,500 to the effort (Tuesday) night.

With Cascade Timberlands' initial $2,000 contribution, that brought the total reward to $14,500 to anyone with information that leads to a successful conviction of the person or persons responsible.    

But then came a flood of more reward donations -- $10,000 from Smith Properties and Friends Dr. James Verheyden, Kevin Spencer and the Garcia Family, and $2,000 from Dalton Baarstad/Brennan Ventury of Vape Game, LLC, pushing the total to $26,500.

Thursday morning, Capt. Shane Nelson reported that Eric and Robin Coats of Shevlin Sand and Gravel had contributed $5,000, putting the total at $31,500. By afternoon, it had reached $36,825, after new donations including $2,500 from Maria and Bob Lotter. Nearly $4,000 more in contributions had been donated by Friday, for a $40,325 total.

Anyone with information that could help identify the suspects is asked to contact the Crime Stoppers Tip Line at 1-877-876-8477 (TIPS).

Those interested in making reward contributions is asked to contact Capt. Shane Nelson at (541) 617-3386 or by e-mail at shanen@deschutes.org.

NewsChannel 21 heard Wednesday from a private donor offering to match all public donations in the next 48 hours, up to "a four-figure number," so that anyone with information about the fires comes forward so those involved can be held accountable.

"We are concerned about our citizens and, given the fact this latest fire is suspicious and human-caused, we need the persons responsible located and held accountable," Blanton said.

"Our community has endured trauma as a result of this fire, and the taxpayers have been burdened by its cost. Their lives have been disrupted, community services have been disrupted, government agency employees have been exposed to dangerous conditions while working this fire, and I truly hope this reward encourages anyone with information to come forward," the sheriff added.

"The public are the eyes and ears to provide information for a successful investigation and effective public safety. Report suspicious activity because if it doesn't look right, it probably isn't," Blanton said.

"The consequences from these fires could have been catastrophic for the city," said City Manager Eric King.  "It's important that we find the cause and who's responsible for starting these fires and a reward contribution from the city is the responsible thing to do."

If citizens see suspicious activity or something that doesn't look right, we encourage them to report it to Deschutes County 911.

Capt.  Shane Nelson said late Wednesday the donations had flowed in for the fund, and the new total was $26,500, including:

Major Contributors to the Reward Fund

  • Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office  $2,500
  • Deschutes County Admin/BOCC    $2,500
  • City of Bend                                      $5,000
  • Taylor Northwest                             $2,500
  • Smith Properties and Friends                     $10,000

Dr. James Verheyden, M. D.

Kevin Spencer

The Garcia Family

  • Dalton Baarstad/Brennan Venturi $2,000

Vape Game, LLC

  • Cascade Timberlands                                   $2,000

Taylor NW has its property on Bull Springs Road, near where two fires that later merged into one broke out Saturday afternoon. The fire began in the area of the Deschutes National Forest boundary with Cascade Timberlands' state-protected forestland.

Cascade Timberlands offered the initial $2,,000 for tips that could identify suspects in the area in the days before the blaze.

For more information on reward contributions, contact Capt. Shane Nelson, (541) 617-3386 or shanen@deschutes.org.

The disturbing news came late Monday as an army of firefighters reported another day of strong progress and lines that held, despite the return of winds, moving to 40 percent containment of the blaze that forced evacuation of 200-plus homes and still has about 2,000 others under a now-reduced Level 1 advisory.

A joint investigation of the origin and cause of the fires is being conducted by the Oregon State Police, U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement, Deschutes County Sheriff's Office, the Walker Range Fire Protection Association and Oregon Department of Forestry.

Here's the rest of the initial release, issued Monday night:

"Investigators located the origin of both fires, collected evidence, and have determined that the fires were human-caused.

"The investigation team is interested in any information members of the public can provide.  Please call with any information about activity, individuals, or vehicles seen on Cascade Timberlands in the days leading up to the fire.

"Cascade Timberlands has added $2,000 for information that leads to a successful conviction.

"Anyone with information that could help identify the suspects is asked to contact the Crime Stoppers Tip Line at 1-877-876-TIPS.

"You can remain anonymous, and you could be eligible for a cash reward."

A form for tips also can be found KTVZ.COM's Crime Stoppers page.

Bend-La Pine school officials said Tuesday the reduced level of threat to Bend's Westside meant classes will resume Wednesday at three Westside schools - Miller Elementary, Cascade Middle School and Summit High School.

The fire lines held at 6,800 acres Monday, and while no structures have burned, one firefighter sustained a minor cut to a leg, Here's the other details in the 6:30 p.m. update:

"Good progress was made on the east flank of the fire. Crews have most of that side complete with hose lines and lots of mop up continues with the advancement of the hose lays.

"Line construction on the west flank of the fire continues and is progressing well. Helicopters assigned to the fire are supporting that line construction operation.

"A considerable amount of smoke was visible from the fire with the increased winds that developed in the afternoon with the arrival of an upper level weather disturbance over the fire.

"Structure protection task forces mobilized under the Conflagration Act continue their work around the structures and mitigation plans are in place, should the fire jump containment lines."

By Monday morning, the first containment figure came -- 5 percent -- with still no structures lost or damaged and no injuries -- and by day's end, that was boosted to 25 percent. The acreage of 6,800 acres equals about 10.6 square miles.

The firefighting army has grown to more than 800, officials said late Monday, and so has the price tag for battling the blaze -- now at $2.2 million.

Crews on hand Monday employed 11 helicopters, 46 engines and 11 bulldozers; air tankers were on standby.

Firefighters took advantage of some calmer weather Sunday to make good progress securing fire line around the eastern and southern portions of the fire.

Some crews from the east flank divisions on the fire were shifted to the western side Monday to help secure fire line there.

Structure protection task forces mobilized from across the state under the Conflagration Act continued to work around threatened homes and have contingency plans in place to help protect the Bend watershed facilities, should the fire jump containment lines.

Sheriff's Capt. Shane Nelson said late Sunday the evacuation alert for 200 homes in Saddleback was being dropped from Level 3 to Level 2 -- in which residents are told to "prepare to leave at a moment's notice.  But the ability to return was only for residents, as proof of residency still will be required at roadblocks, he said..

As deputies continued to patrol the area, Nelson said they "highly recommend residents continue to avoid the area. However, if they choose to return, we recommend they leave their livestock where it is boarded." They also are urged to be "very cautious" due to firefighters working in the area.

Level 1 and 2 evacuation notices are still in effect, Nelson said, with the Level 2 notice -- be "set" to leave at a moment's notice -- in place for homes south of Shevlin Park Road, west of Mt. Washington Drive and north of Century Drive.

The lowest, Level 1 notice -- urging residents to get "ready" and take precautions -- is for areas of NorthWest Crossing east of Mt. Washington Drive, as well as residents north of Shevlin Park and west of Mt. Washington Drive. Level

A Level 3 evacuation alert -- to "go" and leave -- remained in effect for residents of about 50 homes near Skyliners Road west of Bend.

A Red Cross emergency shelter, set up over the weekend, was closed Monday at High Desert Middle School on SE 27th Street in Bend, but officials said they would monitor the situation and reopen it or take other steps as needed.

A fire information line is at (541) 550-4850.

The unified command overseeing the Two Bulls Fire created a Facebook page Sunday, at  https://www.facebook.com/TwoBullsFire -- as well as a Twitter feed to follow @TwoBullsFire.

An InciWeb page also has been created at http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/3889/ which updates will be posted: new updates were posted late Sunday.

Most of the fire activity Sunday was in the northwest corner of the fire, burning in predominately brush and timber, officials said.

NewsChannel 21's Matt McDonald, reporting live Sunday evening from the Skyliners Road roadblock, said COIDC dispatchers told him the tall dark plume of smoke was coming primarily from burning of unburned fuels within the fire's perimeter, and not from growth on the edges.     

The city of Bend shut down its surface-water pipeline late Saturday, moving to only groundwater wells due to that threat while urging residents to conserve water.

The fire is under the command of the Oregon Department of Forestry, with city and county officials working with them.

The park district has closed Shevlin Park and advises residents to avoid Skyline Park – the ball park near Cascades Middle School. Tumalo State Park's day-use area was closed, though the campground remained open.

To help the operation, agencies also ask that Bend area residents avoid the Skyliners Road and Shevlin Park Road and western Mt. Washington Drive areas.  Recreational trails in the Phil’s Trail area also should be avoided.

The two smoke columns first were spotted during the noon hour Saturday -- a lookout atop Black Butte called in the two plumes at 12:48 a.m., though some residents said they saw smoke in that area as much as an hour earlier.

They broke out in an area due west of Tumalo Reservoir, near where the east-west Bull Flat Road ends at the north-south Brooks-Scanlon Logging Road (Forest Service Road 4606). The two fires quickly spread south, fanned by strong winds through the afternoon and evening.

A Type III incident management team handed off at noon Sunday to an Oregon Department of Forestry Type II incident management team.

A Level 2 notice warns of "a good probability that hazards associated with the approaching fire will severely limit our ability to provide emergency service protection."

"You must prepare to leave at a moment's notice," the advisory states, adding that first responders are working on information about when to leave and what routes to take.

Also issued was a Level 1 notice, for residents in the rest of Northwest Crossing (east of Mt. Washington Drive), and the area that includes residents north of Shevlin Park and west of Mt. Washington Drive.

In that area, residents were warned "that current or projected threats from hazards associated with the approaching fire are severe," and that "this is the time for preparation and precautionary movement of persons with special needs, mobile property and (under certain circumstances) pets and livestock.

A Level 3 evacuation notice warns of "immediate threats to the life and safety of persons within this area."

"If you choose to ignore this advisement, you must understand that emergency services may not be available," the notice said. "Volunteers will not be allowed to enter the area to provide assistance."

Along with numerous Forest Service road and area closures -- 4606, 1610, the Skyline Forest, 4601, 4603 and Tumalo Falls --the sheriff's office said several roads on Bend's Westside were closed, including sections of Shevlin Park, Tumalo Reservoir, Sisemore, Tyler, Skyliners and Johnson roads.

Sunday's planned Dirty Half half-marathon near Phil's Trail west of Bend was canceled due to the fire so close by, race officials said.

Around 6:45 p.m. Saturday came word that the fire kept burning toward the south and southwest, and sheriff's volunteers were evacuating residents on Skyliners Road, about seven miles west of Bend.

Search and Rescue crews went door to door, logging which residents were home, and who was agreeing to leave - and who was not.

Many people were busy rescuing or moving animals out of harm's way; Chimps Inc., the Tumalo chimp sanctuary, reported rescuing 50 horses. Those with needs for  pet evacuation were urged to contact Jamie Kanski of the Pet Evacuation Team at (541) 610-6628. The organization is at the Red Cross shelter and also is taking in animals at the Deschutes County Fairgrounds in Redmond.

A fire lookout on Black Butte called in the two blazes, called the Two Bulls Fire (managed as one blaze), west of Tumalo Reservoir around 12:48 p.m., said Lisa Clark of the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center in Prineville.

Tens of thousands of Central Oregon residents and visitors also watched (and took pictures) as the small smoke plumes grow larger and more ominous in minutes, then the first couple of hours, as authorities first tried to determine the location and access to battle the blazes.

The two fires were burning in open land and Ponderosa pines in the area where the Deschutes National Forest and private (Cascade Timberlands), state Department of Forestry-protected property meet, about 10 miles southeast of Sisters and about seven miles west of the town of Tumalo, Clark said.

The cause of the fires was under investigation, officials said.

U.S. Forest Service and Oregon Department of Forestry personnel also were called in to assist Deschutes County and Bend first responders who were closing roads and warning area residents.

Tumalo Falls was closed and visitors ordered out, as was the Tumalo Reservoir area.

Impacts beyond the frightening, tall smoke plumes spread fast, as residents on the south side of Bend at Romaine Village reported a lot of ash falling as the smoke plumes blew south. Ash also was falling at Deschutes River Woods and Tetherow, southwest of Bend. Later, Bend's Eastside also was reporting ashfall -- and the ashfall returned over a wide area Sunday afternoon and evening.

It was an early start to wildfire season in Central Oregon, just as experts have predicted. Fire officials had declared that next Monday would be the start of wildfire season on all public lands in the region, nearly a week earlier than last year due to drying conditions. Meanwhile, fire chiefs had said outdoor burning season would close June 15th (or sooner if needed).

"Fire behavior on these fires shows how dry conditions are on the forest and rangelands east of the Cascades," COIDC said in an early evening update.

"Although it’s early June, the large logs and other downed woody debris are as dry as if it was July," they wrote. "As school gets out and people begin heading out to recreate, fire officials want to remind everyone to be careful with fire. Find out before you head out if campfires are allowed, and make sure any campfire is completely put out if someone isn’t there to watch it."

According to unconfirmed scanner reports, a resident on Sisemore Road (which authorities were closing) indicated he believed the northern fire started first and embers from it might have started the second blaze to the south.

Helicopter crews used Tumalo Reservoir and irrigation ponds in the a large irrigation pond in the area to dump water on the flames.

Clark said the first priority was to make sure those living in or recreating in the area were safe and not endangered by the fire.

“The main focus at this point is figuring out recreationists, campers” in the area who need to get out to be safe.

“Please stay out of the area,” she pleaded. “We’ve got a lot of firefighters responding, and we need for them to be able to get in and have their work unimpeded.”

Stay tuned to KTVZ.COM and NewsChannel 21 for the very latest, and feel free to share 1-2 photos (please pick your best, not a dozen!) to stories@ktvz.com for a later slide show (for now, focusing on latest info).

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