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Forest fires' timing sets tongues wagging
An emerging whodunit in Central Oregon hovers amid the smoke draping the east side of the Cascade Range.
Can it be pure coincidence, locals are asking, that two wildfires sprang up in view of the spot where President Bush planned to promote his plan to thin forests for wildfire prevention?
And that they both appeared just as his plans emerged?
"I think everyone in the community here is wondering that," said Judy Wattier, who works at the KOA Campground just east of Sisters, where business is in the doldrums because of the blazes that have covered almost 40,000 acres in the nearby Deschutes National Forest. "Everyone I've mentioned it to can talk about it for hours."
There are whispered conspiracy theories, even rumors of mysterious black helicopters clattering over the forest shortly before the fires were spotted the afternoon of Aug. 19, two days before the president's visit.
But perhaps folks can be forgiven for that, because there really were black helicopters clattering over the forest.
"Typically the Secret Service does all kinds of aerial surveillance before the president comes in," said Don Ferguson, an information officer for what have become known as the B&B complex fires. "They pretty much know the location of every tree."
The president had planned to speak in Camp Sherman, but the fires forced the evacuation of the small resort town about the time he would arrive. He flew over the blazes in Marine One and spoke in Redmond instead.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and White House press officers fended off questions from reporters at the speech about the curious timing of the fires. "It would be inappropriate for us to speculate about that," presidential spokesman Ken Lisaius said.
Ferguson said he's taken several calls from area residents saying they think the fires appear suspicious.
This much is known: No lightning that might have sparked fires had struck the area for at least 11 days before the twin blazes were sighted, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland. The Central Oregon Dispatch Center in Prineville first suggested lightning had hit a few days before, but meteorologists checked records and dispelled that.
Trees or debris ignited by lightning may smolder for a few days before blooming into a blaze. But 11 days is an awfully long time to wait.
"It is unusual, but not unprecedented," Ferguson said. A lightning-caused fire near Ashland sputtered for 10 days before taking off earlier this year, he said.
The coincidences multiply considering the two fires erupted about 10 miles apart at almost the same time, although winds that whipped through the region might explain that. The Booth fire started near Round Lake, a camping spot next to the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, while the Bear Butte fire began in the wilderness, away from roads.
The Central Oregon Arson Task Force will investigate the blazes, but flames have kept officers from beginning their inquiry.
Lightning starts about 15 percent of wildfires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
People start the rest. Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; firstname.lastname@example.org
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