Recent String of Structure Fires Wracks Local Nerves

On Saturday, May 8, a structure fire located on Highway 99 East in Tangent required assistance from several local fire departments.  According to Tangent Fire Chief Larry Wooldridge, the cause of the fire is still unknown and remains under investigation.   

The Corvallis Gazette-Times last stated May 10 that a “single structure or group of structures was completely engulfed in flames.” However, Tangent Fire District Chief Larry Wooldridge updated The Advocate on the status of the investigation, stating the fire involved one structure – a business identified as Flawless Fractions LLC, a local hemp distributor. The flames, according to CGT, also consumed a nearby truck.  

The Tangent 99 East fire was one of several structure fires in the Corvallis area so far this year. In January, a blaze consumed the Corvallis First Alternative Co-Op in South Corvallis, annihilating the building’s kitchen. The investigation has since been closed with the cause undetermined – but holds the potential of being reopened if any additional evidence surfaces. 

 “CFD [Corvallis Fire District] was able to determine the area of origin and there are a few hypotheses as to how the fire started,” CFD Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Fulsher said. Fulsher added that, when determining the cause of a fire, CFD investigators ensure they are “51 percent or greater certain that a hypothesis can be repeated/duplicated to be the actual cause of the fire.” 

The Lebanon Fire District also reported two simultaneous structure fires on May 16. According to the Lebanon-Express, the first fire was called in at 1:54 p.m. at Sodaville Cutoff Road and was caused initially by a weed burner. The second fire came in at 2:10 p.m. on Burdell Boulevard.  Although the fire’s investigation has been closed with the cause undetermined, LFD included in a related Facebook post that the local transient population has been known to cause issues with this structure. 

“We’ve had a range from small fires to intentionally-set fires, to assault, to murder. There’s been a number of things happening out there on that property,” said LFD Fire Marshall Jason Bolen. 

 The second-degree murder of encampment member Clayton Keith Reed III in February occurred at the site of the Burdell Boulevard fire. Fellow member, Ronald Andrew Mowdy, was charged with Reed’s murder shortly after.  

Resident Speaks Up 

Tangent resident Kara Bishop weighed in with The Advocate regarding the recent structure fires and the emotions she has felt since. 

“Fires in the area without confirmed causes make me nervous,” Bishop said. “Is there an arsonist running around? Will there be more fires in the area? Very nerve-wracking as my home is close to a few industrial-type buildings.”  

According to Bishop, Tangent additionally saw a small fire at a local grass seed company in April. Bishop claimed she was about ten minutes away from the Highway 99 East fire. “The building was leveled and still smoldering a couple of days after the fire,” she said. 

Although arson is easy to suspect regarding suspicious fires, CFD B shift Fire Chief Brett Loomis discouraged against making that assumption. 

“Collection of evidence is a standard process in any investigation and one should not assume that the collection of evidence points to criminal activity,” Loomis told the Daily Barometer. 

Loomis then told The Advocate, “We approach every fire investigation with the same process and use the factual evidence to determine the cause and origin. Each community is different in the causes of fire[s].”  

2021 Wildfires 

Although local fire departments do not keep track of the number of structure fires in Benton County, evidence may suggest that the number of structure fires has increased from previous years.  

Wildfires have tripled so far in 2021, causing Oregon’s earliest wildfire season in over 40 years. Since the majority of both wildfires and structure fires are human-caused, one can argue that both are on the rise — and prevention ultimately starts with us. 

In 2013, nearly 10% of U.S. non-residential structure fires were started by arson. From 2014 to 2018, playing with fire also resulted in over 8,000 structure fires in the U.S., leading to 50 fatalities. 

In Benton County, crime dramatically increased in 2020 after the onset of the pandemic, and arson increased by 50% 

Climate Change  

Structure fires are more likely during warmer weather due to the lack of humidity in the air. Additionally, nearby vegetation can dry out and die, creating the perfect fire breeding ground. 

Climate change is seemingly seeking its vengeance on Mother Earth, and Oregon is no exception. According to a 2018 report by Oregon Wild, a significant correlation was found between Oregon’s forests and climate change. Additionally, Oregon has seen warmer weather and less rain than normal so far this year. 

 “I think the entire state of Oregon is in some sort of drought,” Fire Weather Program Manager for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center John Saltenberger told the Central Oregon Daily 

Although Southern Oregon is of the highest concern regarding its current drought, the Willamette Valley is still under watch, as Salem received half of its normal rainfall in March. 

Stopping Fires Before They Start  

According to the National Fire Protection Association, the five main fire causes are cooking, heating, electrical, smoking, and candles. Rural communities face distinct fire risks due to their distance from emergency services, open fields with brush, and less preventative equipment such as smoke alarms.  

Preventative measures such as creating a home fire escape plan and a smoke alarm safety checklist  can help ease fire anxiety and potentially save lives.  

For more fire prevention resources, visit nfpa.org 

By: Rebekah Harcrow