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POSTED ON Wednesday, August 22, 2012 AT 10:37PM
Tension running high around Little Naches Road closure
By Scott Sandsberry
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GORDON KING/Yakima Herald-Republic
Ron Potter, left, and Jason Fitterer start work to remove Aug. 22, 2012 a trackhoe the interior of which was destroyed by arson on the Little Naches Road near Cliffdell, Wash. The fire was set early Monday, Aug. 20. Potter and Fitterer work for Morgan and Son Earth Moving, the owner of the trackhoe. (GORDON KING/Yakima Herald-Republic)
CLIFFDELL — An already contentious situation surrounding a temporary road closure in the Little Naches this week turned ugly, and nearly tragic.
Early Monday morning, someone broke into and set fire to a 30-ton excavator on the Little Naches Forest Road 1900, where a private contractor hired by the Forest Service had just completed a two-week project to repair road damage caused by flooding in spring 2009.
The arson followed two weeks of barely restrained hostility from recreationists angry about traffic delays in reaching the popular destination for campers, horsemen, four-wheelers and trail motorcyclists. Just before the fire was set around 5:30 a.m., nearby campers were awakened by gunfire as someone shot holes in the stop sign at the construction site.
A Nile Cliffdell Fire District crew extinguished the fire, which was not far from very dry forest.
"You’ve got trees 20 feet away on one side, 40 feet that way," said Yakima County deputy fire marshal Ron Rutherford, who investigated the incident. "Flames get into those trees and it would have been a forest fire."
This part of the Wenatchee National Forest is already ravaged by spruce budworm and bark beetle blight, not far from an area already turned tinder-dry by a fire in 2007.
"If we would have had a fire start there," said Naches Ranger District engineer Barry Collins, who was overseeing the Little Naches road project, "it would have been a big one. And it would have been tough to fight. There’s a lot of dry timber in there.
"It could have been a potentially catastrophic fire."
The damage to the excavator will certainly be costly to Ellensburg-based Morgan and Son Earthmoving, Inc., a small, family-owned business with a long history of working with the Forest Service on road projects. While the excavator — also called a track hoe — was valued at $120,000, it would cost $300,000 or more to replace new, said Forest Service officials and the excavator’s owner, Dan Morgan.
Damage was estimated at $60,000 for parts alone, with labor at least that much, essentially making it a total loss.
"This is absolutely the worst that’s happened," said Morgan, who had planned to move the excavator on Monday to another Forest Service job in the Salmon La Sac area of western Kittitas County. "I do have insurance on it and am confident we’ll get reimbursed, but (we still face) the hassle and heartache of it."
"It can be $8,000 to $10,000 per month to rent one of those. So depending on how long this whole (replacement) process takes, I’m probably looking at a couple of months of a rental just to do the jobs we’ve got on the schedule."
The fire began after someone broke into the excavator by breaking out a rear window and set fire to materials in the cab, Rutherford said. The fire was reported by a camper returning to a campsite after having driven to Whistlin’ Jack Lodge in Cliffdell to call police about the gunshots fired earlier that morning.
Rutherford said the arson might well be "a random occurrence," but tension between project workers and recreationists had been growing since work began Aug. 6. The road was closed each weekday from 7 a.m. to noon, then opened to traffic for a half hour, and then closed again at 12:30 p.m. until the end of the work day.
Many recreationists would get out of their vehicles in anger to accuse the Naches Ranger District — and Collins, who was at the work site every day — of failing to properly notify the public about the closure. Last week someone posted a profanity-laced note on a road-closure barricade, declaring "you Forest Service people are (expletive) ididiots." Both the profanity and the word "idiot" were misspelled.
Some people, though, didn’t stop at the barricade.
"We had people completely disregard the closure sign and, unless a vehicle was completely across the road, they would blow right through the stop sign, blow right past the construction site and keep on going," Collins said.
The excavator "is a dangerous piece of equipment to be around unless you get the (operator’s) attention, so we want to control the area as much as possible."
Drivers hurrying past the unaware excavator operator were taking a risk.
The operator "has got earplugs in and he’s trying to work," Morgan said. "When somebody blows through a closed-road sign and a stop sign, they’re not only putting themselves in danger, but they’re putting my people in danger and putting Forest Service people in danger. It’s not a good deal."
Rutherford, who’s active in local four-wheel-drive and motorcycle clubs, said the recreationists were wrong in accusing the Naches Ranger District of not publicizing the closure.
"It’s been posted, we’ve known about it for two months that on weekdays you can only go through for a half-hour at noon or after 5," he said. "They did a great job as far as media and signs and letting people know."
Yakima County Sheriff’s Deputy Chuck Wilson, who responded to the gunfire and arson calls, said the department didn’t have any suspects but that they could face charges ranging from vandalism and malicious mischief to arson.
The Little Naches, accessed by Forest Road 70 near Greenwater on the west side of the Cascades and by the 1900 road on the east side, is often used by poachers and "a lot of derelicts driving that road at night," Wilson said. "A lot of those type of people, they want to stay off the (State Route) 410 highway, so they take the Little Naches Road and they just raise **** all the way through."
For a week in September, those travelers won’t be able to do that. The ranger district plans a round-the-clock complete closure of the 1900 road from Sept. 10-14, about a mile up the road from the recent repair project, for the installation of a bridge-like structure at another damaged section of roadway.
"We’re hoping to have the work done by the 14th, a Friday," Collins said. "But there’s a possibility the Little Naches will be completely closed through that weekend, and I mean completely — as in the road will be impassable.
"There’s going to be some upset people, but they’ll just have to deal with it."
• Scott Sandsberry can be reached at 509-577-7689 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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