‘Godsend’ or ‘Pipedream 500’?: Huge Crook County speedway proposal founders

Call it a potential financial “godsend” or, if you’re cynical, call it the “Pipedream 500.” But it couldn’t have been proposed in a needier spot: a $350 million speedway complex, featuring a 2-mile, NASCAR-style oval track and seating for 100,000, on a 650-acre site north of the Prineville Airport, in economically troubled Crook County.

But less than a month after news of the proposal became public, unresolved questions in the minds of Crook County officials could spell doom for the project, despite strong support from many Prineville residents and city leaders. Instead, the speedway, which would have been the first of its kind in the Northwest, may go to one of two other undisclosed locations – one possibly in the Seattle area.

Racing Unlimited, a Las Vegas, Nev. Firm formed in mid-April, offered up a long list of potential amenities, ranging from Indy car and dragster racing to industrial and commercial buildings, 35,000 parking spaces, a 1,000-unit RV park, two multi-story hotels, three restaurants – even a six-screen theater.

The financial impact of such a major project on a county still reeling from decades of timber losses would be enormous, all agree. But with lack of acceptable specifics (as yet) about financial backers and the sizable land-use hurdles – expanding Prinevlle’s urban growth boundary to provide water and sewer service – there are still more questions than answers in the minds of county commissioners. And while about 40 acres of the land are within the city, the county must agree to a proposal to sell its 620 acre for $1, or the deal won’t happen.

“They presented us with something they expected us to sign at the drop of a hat,” said Crook County Judge Fred Rodgers. “We are returning the favor and we’ll see whether it smokes them out. We just put a whole list of things down we thought ought to be out there (in the public discussion). They haven’t been forthcoming with a whole lot.”

Not true, according to both Prineville Planning Director Dick Brown and the project’s general contractor and spokesman, Stelian Onufrei of Diamond 2000 Construction in Orange County, Calif.

Pete Schannauer, Crook County planning director, said the county sent the project officials a letter last week that laid out 11 questions and “conditions we’d like to have inserted in the earnest money agreement. We’re asking and not getting really good answers.” Schannauer declined to be specific, due to the private nature of real estate negotiations, but said the requests include “a list of agreements for racing events, proof the design of the track meets major racing organizations’ requirements.”

City understands early secrecy on finances

But Prineville’s Brown said, “Half (of the county’s conditions), they couldn’t comply with if they wanted to. The county wants them to respond within 15 days. They absolutely cannot get land use permits within 15 days.” Brown added that he does believe the city could win approval of a UGB expansion within 45 days. “I’ve already written the UGB expansion proposal,” he said. “I can’t submit it until I get a formal application.”

“The other things the county wants – If I were these people and didn’t know if I could get land use approval, I wouldn’t provide it,” Brown said. He said the project’s backers are not going to offer detailed financial information until permits are in hand. “Once they divulge the names, it’s public information, then everyone and their dogs will be calling and saying, ‘Have I got a deal for you.'”

Onufrei acknowledged that he’s never built a race track before but added, “The county has all the information for us. I don’t have to prove anything. I am the one investing $350 million, not the county. They need to agree to the (land) sale, if they want to get all the benefits and the jobs and everything else.”

According to a proposed sale agreement drawn up with Charlene Boydston of Golden Eagle Realty in Redmond, there would be a projected 1,500 construction jobs for three to five years. The speedway would provide 125 full-time jobs within five years and a proposed business park another 375 jobs, along with 1,250 part-time jobs. For local governments, city planners projected more than $500,000 a year in annual franchise fee and lodging tax revenues, along with almost $800,000 in building permit fees and sewer and water connection charges.

According to Prineville planner Brown, state officials and Sen. Gordon Smith’s office have offered to help identify and obtain grants or loans for sewer, water and road improvements, including an interchange on state Highway 126.

County wants ‘proof’ of track developers’ background

Schannauer, the county planner, said he believes the biggest obstacles would be the land use approvals. “A good portion of the community thinks it’s a good thing,” he said. “There’s probably more opposed than in favor of it, but it has the potential to bring a lot of jobs.” He said the county has been asking for (but not getting) references and other projects done by the backers, “information to believe they could successfully do this. We want some proof.”

Onufrei said he believes the project is stuck in “a power struggle between the county and city.” The earnest money proposal to Prineville was exclusive, he said, but, “As of last week, it’s not exclusive any more. We are pursuing other venues. Whoever comes first is going to get it. We are negotiating very hard.” But there will be no public pronouncements about the other two possible venues, Onufrei said: “We are not going to make the same mistake twice.”

The city planner holds out little hope the county and promoters will come to terms and make the project happen. “I think somebody else is going to benefit” and get the project, Brown said. “I don’t think they (the county) can make a decision. The city’s done all they can do. It’s up to the county now. The county’s either going to come to agreement or going to kill it. It would have been a godsend.”

The Northwest is the only major region of the country without a NASCAR track; the closest is the road course at Sears Point in Sonoma, Calif., near San Francisco. Brown said he believes the track will be built elsewhere in the Northwest, possibly in the Seattle area. “A couple guys from Seattle have called here, looking for (the project promoters,” he said.

‘No risk to county,’ speedway developer claims

Onufrei said the deal’s backers intend to initially spend $10 million to $15 million to develop plans and obtain building permits, before ground is broken. “After that, we are going to disclose all the money and financing – we have to,” he said. “We’ve spent $100,000 to this point. Everyone acts like they are selling their backyard. A track like this has not been built anywhere in the world,” he added, declining to be more specific. “The most amazing fact is, everybody cries, ‘We don’t know this, we don’t know that.’ Nobody from the county has contacted me.”

“We have commitments from two brokerage houses that will finance the deal,”
he said. “There’s no risk on the part of the county. The only thing they’ve got is benefits.”

In his review of the proposal, Scott Cooper, executive director of the Prineville-Crook County Chamber of Commerce, noted that with all the land use, financing and construction obstacles, perhaps the biggest challenge would be to attract the drivers and fans needed to make it a viable, ongoing project. “It would mean attracting 1 in 13 residents of the Northwest to Prineville at least once each year,” Cooper wrote.

Brown acknowledged, “I think they probably overprojected their attendance a little bit. But if we get half of that, the impact is going to be phenomenal. Ten to 12 years ago, we laughed at Brnson, Mo., as a bunch of crazy guys, and now look. We in the city see (the speedway) as an economic bailout for us.” Brown noted that the city is growing 5 percent a year and school counts are rising 3.5 percent a year, but the job base that pays the taxes is growing less than 2 percent a year. “We’re headed for a collision,” he said. “We’re becoming a bedroom community without the tax base to support it.”

Update: DeWolf defends tax rate hike, points to ‘huge’ tax break

Deschutes County’s new budget reflects a higher tax rate but remains significantly lower than authorities could have levied, Commissioner Tom DeWolf said Tuesday.

The county’s six-member budget committee approved a $144.5 million budget for 2000-2001 on Friday after deciding, following some spirited discussion, not to boost property taxes more than proposed, in order to sock money away for future big projects.

“Regardless of some folks who consistently accuse government of doing everything wrong, I believe strongly that we are listening closely to the voters,” DeWolf said. “For the second year in a row, we are leaving a huge amount of money — that has been approved by the voters for county government to spend, I would point out — in the pockets of taxpayers. That total this year is $632,246.”

Indeed, Deschutes County may be alone across Oregon in levying less than its full taxing authority, for the second year in a row. That’s due to the fallout from Measures 47 and 50, which included a complex property tax calculation that mistakenly charged county taxpayers for an expired sheriff’s levy. To make up for that overcharge, the county levied less than its authorized “permanent tax rate,” under Measure 50, then limited the increase from that reduced level last year.

Under the Legislature’s fix of the tax safu, Deschutes County could levy about $1.28 per $1,000 of assessed property value, for a yearly tax bill of $128 on a $100,000 home. But the budget panel – made up of the three county commissioners and three citizen members – instead held to Commissioner (and budget officer) DeWolf’s proposed tax rate of $1.20 per $1,000.

The budget panel had held off on adopting the budget until after the May 16th election, when Oregon voters rejected a statewide measure aimed at fixing the tax snafu in Deschutes and Linn counties. County leaders actually had opposed the so-called “fix,” saying it only messed things up more by giving the whole county a split urban/rural tax rate, similar to the sheriff’s department.

The approved tax rate of $1.20 per $1,000 of assessed value represents a 3.5 cent increase from the 1999-2000 rate. The county expects to levy $9.6 million in property taxes for the coming fiscal year, an increase of $1 million, mostly from new construction.

DeWolf said the tax rate was held down last year because the county expected more than $500,000 in additional funds from what was budgeted. “It actually turned out to be closer to $900,000,” he said. “Most of that money went into (budget) reserves and contingencies so that we can continue to be efficient and not go to the voters for any bond measures.”

The rate boost also is due to new financial needs, such as increased Health Department staffing to operate the new Becky Johnson Community Center in Redmond, he said. A half-time position in the county’s Veterans Office will become a full-time job, to better meet veterans’ needs, DeWolf said.

Had the tax rate not been increased, the county’s share of a tax bill on a home valued at $100,000 last year would have risen from $116.69 to $120.19 (factoring in Measure 50’s 3 percent yearly cap on the growth of property values). Instead, the newly agreed-to tax rate means the county’s portion of that home’s tax bill would rise to $123.60, up $6.91, or almost 6 percent.

On Friday, county Administrator Mike Maier and Treasurer/Finance Director Mary Wynne raised the idea of moving 5 cents per $1,000 closer to the maximum rate, to $1.25, and setting aside the extra $400,000 a year for a dozen capital improvement projects estimated to cost $9.2 million to $12.7 million. The projects on the horizon range from new county “service centers” in La Pine and Sisters to various courthouse improvements, property acquisition and deferred maintenance.

County to study future space needs

“We’d be the only public entity (in the area) saving money for future capital improvement needs, rather than considering a bond measure,” Maier told the panel. But while such a reserve fund might make good sense in private business, the committee decided it would not sit well with the voters and would be a premature step. They agreed to take up the matter again next year, after the county conducts a study of its future space needs.

While the county already sets aside funds for such future needs as the closure of Knott Landfill, Commissioner Linda Swearingen said a tight budget isn’t a bad thing.

“Not having enough money is healthy, now and then,” she said. “It helps us make tough decisions that we don’t have the fortitude to make on our own.” Swearingen said she has suggested a repeat of an early retirement plan used a few years ago to cull the employee ranks.

DeWolf said he could see both sides as defensible, depending on how one defines “fiscal conservatism.” “One way is to levy less than the full amount,” he said. “Another is to use the authorized amount to put away for future needs and not need to pursue a bond issue. It’s a legitimate question to ask. … I don’t ever want to be on the ballot for a bond measure.” DeWolf also said the maximum $1.28 per $1,000 authorized tax rate stems from a problem “that is repaired as much as it’s ever going to be repaired.”

Wynne said the proposed nickel-per-$1,000 increase would not even cover one-fourth of the expected costs of the projects. “It’s just a start,” he said.

Budget group bows to ‘political realities’

Citizen budget panel member Jerry Andres, CEO of Eagle Crest resort, said, “I recognize this (proposal) is good fiscal management, from a business perspective.” But he added that from discussions he’s had with voters, they would oppose the county levying taxes for what would be labeled “a rainy-day fund. (With) the political realities of running a county government, this is not the right thing to do.” Larry Kimmel, a budget panel member who is running for county commissioner, agreed: “The people are going to say, ‘No way.'”

Andres noted, “The federal government has more money than they need, and they are doing the all-American thing – they are looking for ways to spend it. You think they are going to give that money back (with a tax cut)? No way.”

Swearingen also said she feels many items on the list could happen through creative financing and without needing to boost the property tax rate. DeWolf noted that $2 million in department requests were axed before the budget went to the panel for review.

Commissioner Dennis Luke said boosting the tax rate also would make it even tougher politically for the sheriff’s department’s proposed permanent law enforcement district, heading for the November ballot. Commissioner will hold a public hearing and formally approve the budget before the end of the fiscal year June 30th.

The November ballot also will carry several Bill Sizemore-spawned tax measures that officials estimate would cost the state’s budget $1 billion annually. County officials warn the measures likely would mean budget cuts.

The county’s 2000-01 budget is up about 3 percent, in sharp contrast to a whopping 21 percent jump in the city of Bend’s $106.7 million budget for the coming fiscal year. The city budget committee approved that spending plan Wednesday, incuding $9.6 mllion in transportation improvements, $5.4 million in street maintenance and $8 million in water and sewer system improvements. The city is looking at putting a $7 million, 5-year transportation levy on the November ballot.

Wildfire prevention effort starts with a splash

SUNRIVER — The smoke jumpers were grounded and the golf course setting was a bit unusual, but all went well as Deschutes County leaders signed on to take part in the federally funded “Project Impact” wildfire prevention program Thursday afternoon.

City, county, state and federal officials joined fire agencies from throughout the region for a kickoff event at Sunriver’s Great Hall, then walked to a spot by the golf course’s first hole to sign onto a partnership funded by the federal government to the tune of $300,000 over the next two years.

Unlike most communities who take part in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Project Impact program (http://www.fema.gov/impact), Deschutes County isn’t looking at the typical wide variety of potential disasters, from floods to earthquakes. Instead, it’s one of the few plaes in the nation that is focusing its efforts solely on wildfire safety, education and preparedness.

The timing is good, in terms of public attention. It’s been just two weeks since 260 homes in Los Alamos, N.M., were destroyed by a wildfire that started from a prescribed bur which blew out of control. This summer also marks the 10th anniversary of Bend’s Awbrey Hall Fire, which wiped out 22 homes and hundreds of acres of forest west of the city. Six years later, the Skeleton Fire burned down almost as many homes, this time in the Sundance subdivision east of town.

Due to that destructive history, the Bend Fire Department and Deschutes County Rural Fire Protection No. 2 joined Safeco Insurance in creating the FireFree program, a 10-step effort that guided homeowners in how to create a “defensible space” around their home and protect it from wildfire. This year, two weekends of free yard debris disposal at the county’s Knott Landfill brought in a typical year’s worth of cuttings, more than 10,000 cubic yards, officials said

Emergency exit for Deschutes River Woods almost set

The fuel reduction program is just one piece of the Project Impact plans, which also will seek to create more emergency routes in populated areas with limited access. Foremost on that subject, a long-sought southern, emergency exit route from Deschutes River Woods is almost at hand, closing in on a long-sought agreement with Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway for access across their tracks along Highway 97.

Other initial elements of Project Impact include a stepped-up address sign program for county residents, enabling firefighters and others to more easily find homes; emergency power systems for water supply in rural subdivisions; using the county’s computer mapping capabilities to identify critical areas and potential hazards; developing more emergency water supply sources around the county, and public education activities in schools, helping Redmond High School with a riparian ecosystem project.

The day was supposed to include an aerial drop of smoke jumpers and cargo, but the plane to ferry them was not available. Instead, they showed up by ground and demonstrated their gear for the assemblage beside Sunriver’s new $340,000 fire engine.

County Commissioner Linda Swearingen said Project Impact isn’t all federal money and won’t end in two years. She said the county has budgeted $40,000 to pay for an ongoing coordinator and may add a third free weekend for yard debris disposal. She also said she believes there is a need to add a fall cleanup period to the current spring effort. Swearingen, who lived in the Sundance subdivision when the Skeleton fire hit, said it was clear that homes with cleared space around them were more likely to be saved. “It’s not rocket science,” she said.

The county’s wildfire mitigation effort will be replicated elsewhere in the state, said Ken Murphy, assistant director of the Oregon Emergency Management Division. His boss, agency director Myra Thompson Lee, said, “We (in Oregon) have had more disasters in the last seven years than we had in the last 75 years.” She said Project Impact is different than many federal programs in that it “allows communities to do it your way,” with a minimum of strings and red tape.

Forest official defends prescribed burns

George Chesley, fire and aviation officer on the Deschutes National Forest, said a cleared area spelled the difference last August when the Spring River Fire broke out across the Deschutes River from Sunriver “and was aimed right for this community.” The treated area allowed air tankers to move in and stop the fire’s advance, averting a potential evacuation of the resort, he said.

“Prescribed fires are only set under weather conditions that are appropriate,” Chesley said, underscoring the focus of the Los Alamos investigation. He also noted that fewer than 1 percent of prescribed Forest Service burns have escaped the lines over the past quarter-century. Federal agencies have suspended the set fires for 30 days while a review is conducted, but Chesley called them a needed and valuable tool to reduce the fuels that can cause far worse fires. “This is a situation of pay me now (or) pay me later,” he said.

Davud de Courcy, FEMA’s regional manager, said communities pull together to recover after a disaster, and the effort begun by FEMA Director James Lee Witt aims to bring that same partnership and community spirit to avoiding disasters in the first place. The cost of such efforts is far less than the $25 billion the federal government has spent over the past decade in helping people rebuild their shattered communities.

Also on hand in Sunriver and making her first visit to Oregon was the U.S. Fire Administrator, Carrye Brown, the first African-American to run the department that oversees the nation’s fire agencies. She offered congratulations on behalf of President Clinton and Vice President Gore, saying the local Project Impact effort is “setting an example for the rest of the country for wildland fire mitigation.”

Bend Memorial Clinic doctors scrub health plan, forcing patients to switch

In a decision with potentially far-reaching implications, an organization representing most Central Oregon doctors has terminated its contract with Health Net (formerly Qual-Med) Health Plan, forcing about 1,600 Bend Memorial Clinic patients to choose new doctors – or have one chosen for them.

The Central Oregon Independent Practice Association (COIPA), which represents all physicians at the clinic (http://www.bendmemorialclinic.com), canceled the contract with Health Net Health Plan of Oregon Inc. (http://www.healthnetoregon.com) as of May 3rd, after negotiations failed to bring about a new agreement. While issues such as slow payments and excessive red tape requirements have arisen in recent years, the key sticking point was Health Net’s decision to stop requiring referrals by designated “primary care physicians” (PCPs) before members could see specialists for treatment.

In a note to health plan administrators, the clinic said the doctors felt such a change “would seriously impede the ability of the physicians to coordinate the care of their patients.” But Health Net officials and health insurance brokers contacted by bend.com took issue with that claim. In its letters to members, Health Net said the change “was designed to ease our participating providers’ administrative burdens.”

“Every other physician group welcomed the change,” said Judi Irving, president and CEO of Health Net. “COIPA has always been difficult for us to deal with. I think there’s more to it than money.”

The disruption comes at a time when continued sharp rises in health care costs are prompting some firms to make a painful choice and not offer health insurance to their employees. According to the National Federation of Independent Business, only 59 percent of small businesses in Oregon provided health benefits as of last year, compared to 69 percent in 1996.

Since the doctors canceled their contract in February, giving 90 days’ notice, Health Net officials have signed independent contracts with dozens of doctors around Central Oregon and in the Columbia Gorge area, where COIPA also represents physicians. Health Net recently sent letters to about 1,600 members and dependents whose primary doctors are at the Bend clinic. They were told they must switch to a new doctor by July 1 or “we will automatically select a new PCP for you.” About three dozen members of a preferred provider organization (PPO) plan were told they can stay with their doctor “but at greater out-of-pocket expense.”

Docs claim Health Net pulled fast one

Cynthia Kane, a consultant to the doctors’ organization, said COIPA had entered negotiations with the understanding that the referral process would remain in place. “After the contracts were signed, Health Net removed all referral requirements, and that would allow members to self-refer to a specialist,” she said. In fact, she said, Health Net “made a unilateral change. The IPA wasn’t even notified. We sort of found out through physicians, who found out through their patients.”

According to Health Net’s Irving, “You (as a member) are still required to coordinate care through your physician.” But Kane said Irving told her they would pay for visits to specialists even if the member didn’t previously contact their primary doctor about seeing the specialist.

“If we’re going to be at financial risk and take on the responsibility of coordinating care for our members, especially primary care, (we) need to have data from a health plan that can provide you with information to show how you are doing, so you can make decisions about some referrals,” Kane said. “Historically, there hasn’t been good data coming from Qual-Med. They have hard a large staff turnover year after year. The insurance company is shifting risk to the physicians and asking them to manage the dollars and the care. If you have a health plan with open access, how do you manage the care? It doesn’t really fulfill the role of a managed care organization.”

Kane said doctors across the state formed independent practice associations several years ago, when the Oregon Health Plan arose and there was much talk about President Clinton’s proposed national health insurance. “There were needs for physicians to look at, ‘If managed care is coming, what can we do to control our destiny?'” Kane said.

Ned Powers, the administrator of Bend Memorial Clinic, said “about 98 percent of the doctors in the community are members of COIPA,” which is “able to negotiate with HMOS for ‘risk contracts.'” What that means is that the health plan holds back some reimbursement money, 10 to 20 percent, that only is reimbursed if the medical loss ratio is low. “Once Qual-Med removed those requirements, the patient can go anywhere and that reduces the physician’s input,” Powers said. “Now, all of a sudden, you are given X amount of dollars to manage the plan and the can’t manage it, so they can’t coordinate the most appropriate care for the patient.” Powers also denied that most doctors’ groups have accepted the change: “There’s a lot of other clinics not accepting it.”

Brokers: Non-referral is nationwide trend

That’s not the view of Dan Bostrom, who oversees the Agri-Business Council of Oregon’s health insurance plan as chairman of Association Insurance Management Inc. of Portland.

“Qual-Med decided to ease up on the referral process to specialists,” Bostrom said. “The whole United States is going that way. Politicians are demanding it and the big insurance companies are going to force it. Part of it is that studies have shown the reality is, the referral process was costing everybody money. This is one step we don’t need any more.”

“The clinic told me they are not declining to take Qual-Med patients, but they are going to make their charge and it’s up to the patient to pay the difference,” Bostrom said. While HealthNet has promised to cover all bills through July 1, Powers noted that some employers’ contracts extend up to 18 months.

Bostrom said, “We have the second-largest association in the whole state of Oregon, and these people are really confused. Qual-Med (Health Net) has had some problems, but they are really getting their act together. This Judi Irving, she’s been there for six months, and she’s got a very good background with insurance. The people who ran it in the past didn’t have a background in insurance at all. She really understands customer service.”

Irving said the doctors “were trying to dump the responsibility of coordinating the care on the health plan. … The unhealthy thing about trying to drive a health plan out of the Bend area is there will be reduced competition and prices will rise. I think we all lose.”

John Huffman of Willowbrook Insurance Co. in Bend said doctors were complaining “because Qual-Med had so many requirements to fulfill on referral patterns” and the like. By canceling the Health Net contract, he said, “The only people they are hurting is their patients and themselves.”

Doctors’ group may form own health plan

A similar view is expressed by Terry Vibbert of Sage Insurance in Bend. “It’s hard to figure out what (the doctors) are doing,” he said. “It makes no sense. Every health plan is managed care. (Health Net is) figuring 10 to 20 percent administrative costs would be saved by just allowing the doctors to go forward and make their own decision (about treatment). It’s a terribly complicated issue and there’s a lot of political jockeying going on. I’ve got hundreds of people insured on this end, and they are waiting for an answer from me, and I don’t know what to tell ’em. We all had a good thing going until the plug was pulled on them.”

But Vibbert said he believes he knows what the doctors’ long-term agenda is, having been told by COIPA officials recently of a plan by dome doctors to create their own health plan. Kane said such plans, which could come intro fruition next year, actually involve a separate organization, Central Oregon Independent Health Services. It’s an insurance firm owned by some area doctors and currently is under contract with the Oregon Healh Plan and with the federal government for Medicare Plus.

“COIHS is looking at a potential PPO (Preferred Provider Organization) down the road, not an HMO product,” Kane said. She said the 4-year-old organization, with 90 employees, only now has government business, “and right now, that’s a vulnerable place to be.” She said it’s far from a certainty that COIHS can develop a full panel of doctors, as PPO health plans require, and compete with others in the market.

But to Vibbert, “I think there’s a long-term agenda of picking off health plans. … Doctors do managed care, insurance companies manage money. When you have doctors manage money, you have the fox guarding the henhouse.”

Early wildfires spark fear as prevention effort begins

Central Oregon’s wildfire season is heating up early, with a half-dozen blazes in the past two days – a wakeup call for residents as Deschutes County begins a new federally funded fire prevention program. The blazes also come as a new south Bend fire station opens and the Redmond Air Center prepares for a $1.7 million renovation project.

Two new fires were reported Monday afternoon after four that were fought on Sunday, said Jim Holroyd of the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center (http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/centraloregon/fire/firenews.htm). One broke out in the Bessie Butte area of the Deschutes National Forest, near Forest Service Road 18 (China Hat Road) south of Bend. It burned less than a half-acre, but Holroyd said its proximity to the city sparked many calls from anxious residents. Another fire had blackened about 100 acres of Bureau of Land Management rangeland near Trout Creek Campground on the lower Deschutes River, between Madras and Maupin.

On Sunday, another range fire, dubbed the Dant Fire, blackened 800 acres of rocky sage and grassland near the Deschutes on BLM land about 7 miles south of Maupin. The Pringle South blaze burned 6 to 10 acres about a mile south of Pringle Falls on the east side of the River. Two more small blazes burned on the Walker Range Fire Protection District in northern Deschutes County, one of about an acre in the Wagon Trail subdivision and another of about 3 acres in the Antelope Meadows subdivision.

None of the blazes threatened any structures. Holroyd said the causes of the fires were under investigation but that all appeared to be of various human causes, but not deliberately set.

Fire officials fear this could be a major year for wildfires in Central Oregon, considering how dry the fuels are for this time of year. “You’ve got the warm days and the wind,” Holroyd said. “We had a mild winter and a lot of rain early. What we’ve had lately is not very much moisture.”

Dan Torrance, manager of the Redmond Air Center, also expects it to be a busy year for the contracted C-130 and DC-6 tankers based at the facility, most of which dates back 36 years. “Indications are shaping up for an above-average year,” he said.

The Forest Service plans to spend $1.7 million over the next year or so on the first major renovations to the Redmond Air Center facility since it was built in 1964, Torrance said. Part of the reason for the upgrade is to prepare for the next generation of air tankers, probably newer model C-130s, Torrance said.

The first phase, which could start this fall, will include reconstruction of the ramp where planes taxi and are loaded – and which has such large cracks that crews sometime have to mow the grass that shoots up. The air center also will get a new drainage and distribution system, including better containment for any spills of retardant and for washing of the tankers. Tanks where the liquid retardant concentrate are mixed with water will be moved as well, Torrance said.

In the second phase, the air center is scheduled to get anew 3,400-square-foot operations building, replacing what was supposed to be a temporary trailer that has been used since the 1960s. “That will allow us to house pilots, and we can’t do that now,” Torrance said. The construction work is expected to take up to a year, Torrance said, and contingency plans will be in place to use portable equipment, if need be, should the project extend through a wildfire season.

New fire station opens; Project Impact begins

On Wednesday at 2 p.m., the Bend Fire Department and Rural Fire Protection District No. 2 will cut the ribbon to open the new South Fire and Police Station on Country Club Drive. The new fire station, built beside one being replaced, will be open for tours from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The partnership between the city and fire district will result in three new fire stations, an administration building and a training tower, all without asking for more property tax dollars.

On Thursday, U.S. Fire Administrator Carrye Brown will be keynote speaker at Sunriver’s Great Hall for the kickoff of Deschutes County’s “Project Impact” program, funded by a $300,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The effort will build on the Bend area’s FireFree program with a more extensive county effort to reduce the risk of wildfire through removal of fuels around homes.

Bend faces challenges on road to ‘smart growth,’ expert says

It won’t be easy, but fast-growing cities such as Bend must work on “smart growth” initiatives if they are to retain the quality of life that makes them so popular, an expert in the field told Bend Chamber of Commerce members Friday.

“I’m from California – don’t hold that against me,” said Audrey Taylor, president of Chabin Concepts Inc. in Chico, Calif., who travels around the West Coast preaching the gospel of “smart growth,” which she said focuses on the “Three E’s:” economy, environment and social equity.

On only her second visit to Bend, Taylor said she’s already decided it’s one of the three communities she would like living in, the others being Boulder, Colo., and Pleasanton, Calif. She has watched the pro- and anti-growth battles around the West, but doesn’t believe the two sides are really that far apart.

“I don’t think we’re really against growth,” Taylor said. “We are against anything that changes our quality of life” in a negative way, primarily headaches such as traffic congestion. She said her husband Jerry (who was enjoying a sunny round of golf as she spoke) had turned to her in a recent Chico traffic jam and said, “There’s too much traffic. We’ve got to move.”

Some critics throw “smart growth” into the same bin of buzzwords as “sustainable growth” and other terms that they consider a smoke screen for anti-business viewpoints. But Taylor said government agencies, architects, planners and builders are getting on the smart growth bandwagon, and communities and their leaders need to better understand what it’s all about and the hard decisions that lie ahead.

Taylor stressed the economic leg of the “Three E’s” stool, saying it’s often given short shrift but is key to efforts to improve the environment or social conditions. As a global “new economy” comes into being, virtual communities – where one can live anywhere at any time – have their advantages. But they also pose threats to rural areas that need more technology and other infrastructure to compete for jobs.

“Change is inevitable,” Taylor said. “You can either move forward or backward.”

As companies reengineer work processes and create new ways of working, residents are demanding more attention be paid to quality of life issues, such as protecting open space and narrowing the gap between haves and have nots, she said.

Regional planning is key

To Taylor, one key is regional planning, so that one community doesn’t suffer in another’s shadow, leading to problems that affect everyone. Pointing to nearby Redmond, she said, “You should want them to grow at a similar pace to yours – grow differently, but at a similar rate.”

As for Bend, she said, “Everything looks good here.” But even without having studied the numbers, she could find some warning signs. “It looks like you kind of lean toward the tourism” industry, Taylor said. “You need to try to get on the bandwagon of the new economy. She pointed to a need for mixed-use zoning, public transit, technology infrastructure and schools that equip youth with needed skills for the new workforce.

“You have to change how you are doing business,” Taylor said, calling for more collaboration and partnerships. It’s relatively easy for communities to devise a shared vision, but much harder to agree on how to grow while maintaining a high quality of life.

“You guys have a wonderful quality of life here,” Taylor said. “How do you maintain it? Bend has the opportunity for a great future in the new economy.”

Working together might be more difficult in coming years as new factions continue to form, from Friends of Bend to the new Citizens for a Livable Bend, a group announced to the chamber by Don Smith of Comfort Insulation.

“It’s not easy,” Taylor said. “Everybody needs to be involved, to listen and to agree to disagree on some things. It’s not about making the rich richer. It’s about making the community richer.”

The Silicon Valley has ample examples of what other communities hope to avoid, she said, with 90-mile, 2-hour commutes and a home of 792 square feet selling for $552,000.

Cities must work to end policies that lead to inadvertent sprawl, Taylor said. The country’s biggest companies want more collaboration and communities that are dynamic, building in continuous change as a given.

One audience member noted that California’s better-planned communities suffer from a lack of affordable housing. “That’s why we push regionalism,” Taylor said, noting that outlying communities can offer less costly homes.

Transportation dollars key in Bend’s record budget

The city of Bend (http://www.ci.bend.or.us) has proposed a record $106.7 million budget for the coming fiscal year that jumps a whopping 21 percent, which officials said reflects a 24 percent population spike,
due to annexation of the urban growth boundary.

The seven city councilors and seven citizen budget committee members were given the thick document Wednesday night and will review the 2000-01 proposal for up to three nights, starting next Tuesday at 7 p.m. at City Hall. Much of the attention will focus on a crucial, complex set of transportation-related decisions facing the council in coming weeks.

The 17-member Bend Transportation Advisory Committee (BTAC) wrapped up months of meetings by presenting its recommendations to the council and the city’s seven-member planning commission. The key proposals include placing a $7 million, 5-year property tax levy on the November ballot that would expand the Dial-A-Ride service to include the general public, complete top-priority urban trails, fill in missing sidewalks on major streets and boost the street maintenance fund. The proposed fundng amount equals 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $35 added to the property tax bill for a $100,000 home.

The levy package is only one part of $62.2 million in transportation projects the panel recommends over the next five years. Almost half the dollars will come from state gas tax revenues, despite voter thumping of a proposal to hike those taxes. A major chunk of the rest of the money – about $21 million – would come from road system development charges (SDCs) that a consultant has proposed tripling to more than $3,000 per home, in order to fund road needs. Such a fee would be the highest in Oregon and, according to a critic who spoke Monday night, would boost fees for one proposed commercial project to over $1 million.

Paula VanVleck, a real estate broker, said national restaurant developers tell her no other area has such high “traffic impact fees.” If imposed at the proposed levels, she warned, the fees “will virtually shut down this type of development. … Is the real desire to stop development? I hope not.”

The budget also is based in part on a package of west Bend traffic improvements the city is now finalizing with the West Bend Transportation Consortium, developers of several major projects on the city’s west side. The consortium proposes to pay $7.68 million up front for eight traffic roundabouts, completion of Mount Washington Drive, and probably the most controversial element – a westward extension of Reed Market Road and bridge over the Deschutes River, the so-called “southern crossing.”

The developers would be reimbursed from SDCs paid during 10 years of development in the area. But Mike Hollern, speaking for the consortium, noted that the money would be reimbursed with no interest, and only if projects proceed as backers hope. The consortium also would build or upgrade more than 5 miles of collector roads and 11 miles of new trails or sidewalks, while donating more than 73 acres of road right of way to the city. For its part, the city would have to agree to boost transportation SDCs to cover all road design and construction costs – and complete the Reed Market Road extension.

County urged to enact road fees

BTAC also is urging that Deschutes County enact a transportation SDC, in part to blunt potential sprawl from the city to the county, due to sharply lower development costs. The commission said that would let the county shift state gas tax revenue to the city to maintain streets used by both city and county residents.

The committee has made the southern crossing and Reed Market extension its top-priority project on a proposed 5-year transportation project list. No. 2 on the list is improvements to the Portland Avenue/Hill Street intersection, followed by the Wall/Bond and Arizona/Colorado couplets. The panel also added a new project, linking Franklin Avenue to Bear Creek Road, for another needed east-west connection. As part of its review of the city’s new Transportation System Plan (TSP), BTAC also is urging the city to explore using SDC dollars for bike, trail or transit projects that reduce reliance on the automobile.

BTAC members, honored for their 2,000 hours of work Wednesday night, also studied other funding options and did recommend that higher franchise fees, transient room (motel) taxes) and/or a street utility fee be considered to help pay for street maintenance. They also urged the city to develop a system of revenue collections from downtown tenants and owners to fund parking improvements in the area.

“We talked a lot about a (local) gas tax, but (former Mayor) Allan Bruckner told us not to” suggest it, said committee member Kirk Schueler, president of Brooks Resources. A proposed city gas tax was rejected by voters in 1992, though not as severely as this week’s proposed state gas tax hike.

Asked how much of the proposed city budget is in “wet cement” due to the pending transportation decisions, City Manager Larry Patterson said, “A lot.”

As the night ended, City Councilor John Schubert expressed some misgivings about the rapid timetable needed to put all the pieces in place for budget adoption, higher SDCs, approval of the transportation plan and sending a measure to voters – all by July. “I’m not sure that it’s the best for the public and its input,” he said.

Transportation hearing set for June 21

Patterson acknowledged the issues are interrelated and that some tough decisions are looming, but added with a smile, “We have jumped in the river and we have got to swim to the other side.” The city council and planning commission plan a joint public hearing June 21 on the Transportation System Plan.

Council Bill Friedman said he’d have no problem making some early decisions, based on proposed development fees, then going back and making any needed changes, if the amounts change.

The city expects to collect about $10.1 million in property taxes in the coming year, an 8 percent increase that includes the maximum 3 percent rise in existing tax bills and about 5 percent in new construction. About $5 million of that money goes to police services and $4 million to the fire department.

In his budget message, Patterson said capital projects represent one-third of the budget and personnel costs are 22 percent. The city’s police force has grown from 45 to 65 officers in the past five years, largely due to annexation. Nine new firefighters are proposed this year as the city adds a fifth fire station.

Even if other proposed new funding sources come to pass, Patterson said, the city needs to find another $1.2 million to $1.5 million a year for long-term road needs. While it doesn’t garner headlines like road issues do, more than $8 million will be spent in the coming year on improving city water and sewer systems, including drilling four new wells and building a new 3 million gallon reservoir, the second in the Outback area west of the city.

Home rule crushed; Daly wins GOP commission nod but loses key endorsements

Editor’s note: Deschutes County election results are available at http://mom.deschutes.org/election/results.htm .

Deschutes County voters soundly thumped a proposed home rule charter Tuesday, the fourth such defeat in 35 years, while Republicans chose Redmond excavator Mike Daly over Bend ice company owner Ray Lakey as their nominee for county commissioner.

The home rule charter proposal, in the works for several years, would have kept three full-time commissioners, as under the current system, but would have made them nonpartisan positions. The changes also would have made the county clerk, assessor, treasurer and surveyor appointed, rather than elected posts. Concerns over the commissioners’ ability to impose taxes without a public vote and other issues helped to fuel a solid rejection of the charter, with 71 percent no votes to 29 percent in favor.

Daly, who handily outspent Lakey, won by almost a 2-to-1 ratio, capturing 62 percent of the votes to 32 percent for Lakey. Another 6 percent, or almost 700 GOP voters cast write-in ballots, most presumably for independent candidate Randy Gordon of La Pine, the Bend-La Pine School Board chairman, who mounted a write-in campaign to gauge his early popularity.

But the most telling sign of the candidates’ lack of name familiarity is the large number of voters in both parties who sat out the commission race. More than 3,500 GOP voters, or almost 24 percent of those who returned their ballots, did not choose either candidate. A similar result happened to lone Democratic candidate Kimmel, who got 88 percent of the party vote, compared to 12 percent write-ins. Even though Democrats opened their primary to independent voters who wished to cast a Democratic ballot, almost 4,000 voters, more than one-third of the party’s total, did not cast a vote in the commission race.

In a major Election Night development, two prominent Republicans – Lakey and the commissioner he sought to succeed, Linda Swearingen – announced their endorsements of Democrat Kimmel, a Bend businessman and La Pine-area developer who has been on the county’s budget committee for six years.

“I think Kimmel has the experience to come in and do an outstanding job,” Swearingen said. She also noted that she and fellow commissioners had backed a portion of the home rule proposal that would have made the commission seats nonpartisan. Colleague Tom DeWolf, also on hand for the vote results, said, “I don’t do endorsements.”

Lakey critical of GOP victor

Lakey, admitting he felt bitter about the campaign’s outcome, was more pointed in his reasons for endorsing Kimmel. “We don’t need another Bob Nipper,” he said, referring to a controversial former commissioner. Lakey criticized Daly’s radio commercials, noting that his “claim to fame is driving a police car 100 mph and building roads some time.” Kimmel, on the other hand, “knows what he’s talking about,” Lakey said. Despite some hard feelings, Lakey said, “The sun is going to come up tomorrow and I’m going to have a good day.”

Daly admitted he was bothered by the large number of nonvoting Republicans, labeled “undervotes” on the official returns. “That’s unbelievable,” he said. Daly’s public relations advisor, Steve Claar, said it’s clear no one has the race wrapped up and that all three candidates will have to work hard to gain name recognition and connect to voters.

One factor cited by candidates for the lack of voter awareness was the fact that neither the Bend Chamber of Commerce nor the League of Women Voters held their traditional public debates between candidates in contested races.

Kimmel told Daly, “I don’t think either one of us will run away with it.” Daly replied, “It’s going to be a horse race.” And much could ride on the third “horse,” independent Gordon, perhaps the best known of the three due to his role as school board chairman. County Clerk Susie Penhollow said the write-ins won’t be counted by hand, since they don’t equal any official candidates’ tally.

DeWolf on charter defeat: ‘Que sera, sera’

There was some good news for county officials in statewide balloting. Measure 77, a supposed fix to a property tax snafu in Deschutes and Linn counties, was being defeated, 57 to 43 percent. Had it passed, it would have given the county a split tax rate, much like the sheriff has – not the solution that lawmakers or anyone else had intended.

DeWolf, who had championed a home rule charter in his run for office, wasn’t too disappointed at its defeat. “I love Doris Day, so que sera sera – whatever will be, will be,” he said. “I think we gave it our best shot.”

Jim Carnahan, who led the committee that drafted the charter, said residents were poorly informed and not very interested in the proposal. In hindsight, he said, the panel should have rejected criticism by current commissioners and “gone for the whole enchilada,” sticking to an earlier proposal that would have replaced three full-time commissioners with seven part-time policy makers and a county administrator overseeing day-to-day operations. Such a dramatic change would have raised public awareness and been more in line with the proponents’ initial goals of improving how county government functions and works with residents, Carnahan said.

Penhollow said more than 46 percent of county voters cast ballots in the nation’s first vote-by-mail primary – the highest turnout for a primary in eight years – and she credited that to the convenience of mail balloting. Penhollow had opposed the home rule charter, saying voters should decide who fills countywide positions. To show there were no hard feelings, Carnahan brought the county clerk a small bouquet of pink flowers after the results were known.

In the county’s only other contested race, incumbent Surveyor Jeff Kern defeated challenger Mike Berry, 54 percent to 45 percent, with 1 percent write-ins. Again, many voters — more than 10,000, or one-third of the total — didn’t mark their ballots in the race.

Brown and Stiles, biggest money-raisers, trade early fire

Editor’s note: Deschutes County election results are available online at http://mom.deschutes.org/election/results.htm).

The biggest fund-raisers in Deschutes County politics so far this election year weren’t even on Tuesday’s mail-in ballot – but they already have each other in their sights.

Sheriff Greg Brown and his November challenger, Bend police Lt. Les Stiles, are headed for quite a spendy race, if their fund-raising efforts so far are any indication. And while both candidates vow to run campaigns on the high road, their contest is bound to be combative on a variety of issues.

Campaign expense reports filed last week show Brown has raised about $34,000 and has spent very little of that cash so far. Stiles, on the other hand, had raised more than $27,000 and spent all but about $2,000 of that already.

The lack of any additional candidates pushed the sheriff’s race back to the November ballot, when the county also plans to have a permanent law enforcement tax district up for a vote. The city councils of Bend, Redmond and Sisters all have unanimously endorsed the law enforcement district. The county had sought the votes, since city approval is required before a district can be proposed to voters.

Asked about the early spending, Stiles told bend.com via e-mail, “All the work and material I prepared for the primary was in the areas that I will need for the general (election), so in that respect, I am ahead of the curve.” Stiles said he has set a goal of raising about $100,000 for this year’s race. “It costs a lot to run against an incumbent,” he said.

But Stiles also took his foe to task, alleging that “the really big difference in spending comes from (Brown) using taxpayer dollars to campaign.” He accused Brown of running “quasi-public service announcements” urging people to vote. Stiles said two media outlets ran the ads for free as PSAs, while a third charged Brown, calling it a political ad.

“If I could use taxpayer dollars for the pens, pencils, rulers, etc. that (Brown) is handing out at his taxpayer-funded booth at the home show,” Stiles said, “I would not have to spend as much as I have.”

Brown denied any wrongdoing, saying, “I can tell you that almost every sheriff in the state, when we run home shows” or the like, engages in similar activities. “We are the sheriff,” Brown said. “The public likes to know who the sheriff is.” Regarding the ads promoting voter participation, Brown said, “Not one penny of taxpayer money went into those.”

In a previous campaign, Brown said he had begun giving out rulers with his name on them. Told he could not do that, under state ethics laws, the sheriff said the rulers “sat in a box until after (the campaign) and then I gave them to elementary kids.”

Stiles vowed that if elected, “I will not spend a penny of taxpayer dollars for pens, pencils, rulers, etc. with my name or the sheriff’s department name on them. It is a waste of money – period. Its only function to further his name and not in the public interest.”

For his part, Brown said his previous two campaigns for sheriff, the first an unsuccessful bid against then-Sheriff Darrell Davidson, were “positive, clean campaigns. I have a long history of running fact-based campaigns.”

Stiles has distributed colorful brochures with his slogan – “He’ll Run it Right” – and created a Web site at http://www.lesstiles.org that features such items as letters back and forth between Stiles and the county over his attempt to gain information about grant-funded positions. Brown has registered the name http://www.sheriffgregbrown.com but there is only a placeholder there now. “I do not intend to be political until fall so it doesn’t interfere with my job as sheriff,” he said.

Incumbent lawmakers set fund-raising pace

There’s a much larger financial contrast between candidates in Senate District 27 for the seat being vacated by Bend lawyer Neil Bryant, due to term limits. Former House Speaker Bev Clarno, unopposed in her GOP primary race, has raised about $30,000 and still had more than $17,000 left as of last week’s report filing. Her little-known Democratic opponent this fall, Anne Philiben of Bend, reported a zero tally, in terms of money raised or spent.

On the House side, District 54 incumbent Tim Knopp, seeking his second term in Salem, had raised more than $14,000 and still has more than half of that amount in hand, with no party opposition in the primary. That sum is well ahead of his expected fall opponent, Democrat Ken Cooper, a Bend resident and retired teacher, who had raised about $4,700 so far and spent all but about $1,450.

District 55 incumbent Ben Westlund, also facing no Republican primary foe, reported raising close to $17,000 so far and still has about $15,000 heading into an expected fall race against Democrat Douglas Dunlap, a forest engineer and the mayor of Metolius. Dunlap raised $535 for his campaign and still had that amount in hand at the date of his recent filing.

In the biggest contested local race on Tuesday’s ballot, for Linda Swearingen’s soon-vacated Deschutes County commission seat, Republican nominee Mike Daly’s $14,000 loan to his own campaign pushed his total well ahead of three competitors. Daly reported total fund-raising of about $18,000 and had spent most of it on an extensive ad campaign. Fellow Republican candidate Ray Lakey of Bend had raised almost $5,300 and, like Daly, had little left as their campaign ended.

Randy Gordon, an independent candidate who staged a write-in campaign for the primary, had raised almost $15,000 and had $2,240 left. Democrat Larry Kimmel, who faced no primary foe, raised about $9,200 and had almost $4,000 to carry into the fall campaign.

Ban on prescribed fires halts Central Oregon program

This year’s record program of prescribed fires on federal lands around Central Oregon was stopped in its tracks Friday by a 30-day ban on such fires throughout the West in the wake of this week’s destructive New Mexico blaze.

Federal land managers in the area say the temporary ban should not have too severe an impact on Central Oregon’s burning plans for this year, which encompass more than 32,000 acres of public lands within a 4.5 million-acre base. But if the ban is extended, as top officials indicate is possible, that could prevent some programs from being completed, said Steve Lent, a manager working on prescribed burns in the Ochoco National Forest (http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/ochoco/) and on the Bureau of Land Management’s Prineville District (http://www.or.blm.gov/Prineville/).

The blaze that has destroyed 260 homes in Los Alamos, N.M. has heightened the long-simmering dispute over the use of intentionally set blazes to remove vegetation that experts say can fuel wildfires. In Central Oregon, low-intensity fires historically crept through the ponderosa pine forests every five to 15 years, clearing out vegetation and reducing the impact of more devastating wildfires, officials say. But excluding and halting fires in recent decades has led to a variety of problems, they say, rangng from overcrowding to vulnerability of trees to insects and disease.

On Friday, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who oversees the BLM, and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, whose oversight includes the Forest Service, imposed a 30-day suspension of prescribed fires west of the 100th meridian, which crosses through west Texas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

“This suspension is being instituted immediately and may be extended beyond the 30-day period,” Glickman said. “Certain exceptions may be granted with national-level approval to address high-priority mitigation efforts in very low-risk areas.”

The decision to suspend burning “was not unexpected,” Lent said Friday. “The trouble is that this comes on the heels of (an escaped prescribed fire) that happened last year in Northern California. You can say one is a once in 100 years event, but then when you have two, it brings more scrutiny.”

Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck said the temporary halt to prescribed fires will give officials a chance to evaluate the fires’ usefulness and procedures. But Babbitt noted that more than 2 million acres have been set ablaze each year and that he remains convinced the fires are a key part of land management in the West.

Several conditions are weighed in deciding when and how a prescribed fire is set, such as moisture levels in the fuels, air temperature, wind speed and humidity. Limiting the impact on air quality is a high priority. The spring burning window generally runs from March through May, with another burning period in October and November. The BLM also does some range burning in late summer, as opportunities allow. Congress has boosted funding for prescribed fires in recent years, officials say.

Local official doesn’t expect permanent fire ban

Lent said close to half of this year’s planned burn program in the region already has been completed, but that 18,000 acres the BLM planned to set ablaze in late summer “may be in jeopardy” if the ban is extended. It also could curtail plans to burn vegetation at higher elevations on the southern end of the Deschutes National Forest (http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/deschutes/), in the Crescent area, where late spring snows are just melting off, he said. Lent added that he doesn’t believe any of the local fire plans would meet the high-priority exception criteria outlined in Friday’s suspension.

In 20 years of prescribed fires across Central Oregon’s federal lands, an average of almost 20,000 acres has been burned each year, Lent said. Noting this year’s record acreage, he said, “We’re trying to get rid of a lot of the highly flammable fuels.”

In New Mexico, the Bandolier National Monument superintendent has been suspended while investigators work to learn why the blaze was set despite extremely dry weather conditions, with low humidity and high winds.

Lent said one big difference in Central Oregon is that a majority of the prescribed fires have been set on land far away from populated areas. He acknowledged that some prescribed fires in the area have spread farther than expected due to unforeseen weather changes: “We certainly have had those, but nothing that threatened structures.”

Even if the suspension of prescribed fires is extended, Lent said he does not expect a total ban on such blazes to result from the destructive New Mexico blaze.

“I don’t see that happening,” he said. “I think we could have to have a lot more review prior to burning. It’s a tool, and a very valuable tool. If it’s taken away, a lot of resource management cannot be done.”