'I was prepared to lose a lot'
August 10, 2001
By Peter Farrell, The Oregonian
When he first took command of the University fire Wednesday evening, Portland Battalion Chief Joe Wallace didn't think he could save all the threatened houses.
He was concerned about possibly losing lives.
He briefly considered sacrificing a block of homes nearest the North Portland bluff, pulling back and fighting the fire from the far side of Willamette Lane, a narrow street west of North Willamette Boulevard.
"That thought crossed my mind," he said. "That's where you would really want to stop it" if the fire proved overwhelming and threatened to gobble up the blocks beyond.
The fire seemed so likely to spread that one of the first things Wallace did, he said, was call for police to start warning people to leave their threatened homes.
Wallace was the first chief on the scene Wednesday as a riverside brush fire turned into a wildfire and spread toward the homes on the bluff overlooking the Willamette River near the University of Portland.
His first assessment: "I was prepared to lose a lot."
To the relief of the residents, although some homes were scorched and damaged, firefighters were able to stop the flames before they reached the inside of any of the houses. But relief was tempered Thursday as firefighters advised residents of the bluff area to search for possible hidden fires in their rain gutters, crawl spaces and woodpiles.
Sparks from wind-driven fires remain a threat, fire officials said.
Mayor Vera Katz said that she feared for the safety of residents as she watched television reports on the fire.
"I was very impressed by the combined effort on display last night of firefighters, police officers, Maintenance Bureau workers and citizen volunteers," the mayor said in a statement. "They confronted a dangerous situation and responded quickly and with great skill and cooperation."
She had special praise for firefighters. "Last night we all saw firsthand what an important role they play in the public safety of our city."
Fire crews took four-hour turns Thursday standing by to deal with any possible flare-ups in the bluff area while investigators sought to determine just how a passing Union Pacific freight train ignited brush along the tracks on the east bank of the Willamette River.
The train started multiple fires as it lumbered on. Fire investigators were trying to determine Thursday if the engine's exhaust or problems near a wheel sparked the fire, said Neil Heesacker, a Portland Fire Bureau spokesman. The train carried Toyotas from Terminal 4 to the railroad's Albina Yard.
The fire spread so far along the tracks that Wallace took command of more fire than he could see.
When he got to the fire, "all I could see in both directions was smoke and flames," he said. "I did not have a clear picture of the full extent of the fire, the full length of it. It was really linear. If you looked down the bluff and looked down river it amazed me how far it went and what we were dealing with."
While he was still a minute or so away, Wallace had heard the fire officer in command of the first responding units call in a second alarm.
"If he hadn't, I would have," Wallace said. Just from the billowing smoke, "I could tell we were going to need it."
At 5:57 p.m., three minutes after he arrived, the battalion chief took the fire to a third alarm. Each additional alarm brings about six pieces of fire equipment with their four-person crews as well as support units. As early as the second alarm, pre-arranged mobilization plans start sending neighboring fire departments to cover the unstaffed Portland stations.
The fire eventually went to five alarms at 6:20 p.m., bringing in all Portland units -- about 170 firefighters in all -- with more neighboring fire departments moving up to cover Portland. Additional firefighters were called from their homes. The fire was under control shortly after 11 p.m., and 60 firefighters stayed overnight to extinguish spot and tree fires.
One of the firefighters called from home was George Christie, the captain of Station 26, which serves the bluff fire area. He hadn't been called back to duty on a fifth alarm for about five years.
His firefighters know the bluff area well, he said Thursday. "We've had two or three fires there this year already," he said. But those fires covered two or three acres, far smaller than Wednesday's fire, which stretched somewhere between one and two miles.
Some Portland firefighters not only have experience with wildland fires, they are certified as trained in fighting them, Heesacker said. "Every day we print up a list of people on duty who are trained and who volunteer to go on wildland fires," he said. If a state agency calls for a mobilization, usually to protect buildings in forests, those firefighters will be ready to go, he said. "They bring their sleeping bags to work with them."