Fire Alert

Cellphone issues challenge firefighters, residents

Limited service can cause communication gaps

Communication key during Waterman Complex Fire

PRINEVILLE, Ore. - The Waterman Complex fire was at 35 percent containment among the three blazes, fire officials said  late Thursday. The fire has burned over 6,000 acres and there are nearly 700 people battling it.

But heat, wind, and flames aren't the only things causing headaches at the Waterman Complex Fire.  Communication troubles could make matters worse.

At the fire line east of Prineville, there is little to no cell phone service to be found.  That can cause big issues for the trio of fires near Mitchell, where there are a wide and growing number of parts, teams and fire fronts to tackle. 

"It has been a struggle with cellphones -- there hasn't been very good cellphone service out here," Dave Wells with the Oregon Department of Forestry in Tillamook said Thursday.

It's not much of an issue between fire teams, as communication is rarely reliant on cell service.

"We have our radios, and we're in contact with each other," said Public Information Officer Elizabeth Shepard. "We also have helicopters that provide really good air service, if we need to talk to anybody."

But for residents looking to land information, the lack of cell service can make things difficult.  Fortunately, information is finding a way to get spread -- the old fashioned way. 

At the roadblock off of Highway 26, information officers are informing residents.  And with major roadblocks on Hwy. 26E between Prineville and Mitchell, that means giving directions around the highway closure.

"This is an important part, and we will be here all weekend," Shepard said. "We can inform people of any changes, give directions, and be supportive of the community."

A Type 2 incident team is in charge of the Waterman Complex Fire, meaning the info exchange between the incident team and fire agencies is equally important. Ochoco National Forest Public Affairs Officer Patrick Lair says that while communication is solid, they aren't taking any chances.

"We've brought in a mobile cell tower all the way from Boise," Lair said. "That's going to be up and running this evening, so we'll have a lot better communications here shortly."

And with better communication, there's a better chance that all three of the fires will be taken care of in a timely and efficient manner.

"Passing on intelligence, moving assets, making decisions -- it all depends on really good communications," said Lair.

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