July 23, 2004
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The day Tollgate burned -- July 26, 1979
By Jim Fisher, Correspondent

Bud Beechwood films and Leo Wilson narrates during the Tollgate fire. photo by Jim Fisher
It was a hot, summer morning July 26, 1979 -- 25 years ago. Waiting at the Sisters airport with Fire Prevention Director Leo Wilson for the Oregon Department of Forestry plane to arrive, I visited with two Sisters residents, logging contractor Harold Barclay and airport owner Cliff Clemens.

I introduced myself as Public Affairs Director with the department and told them, "We drove from Salem this morning to meet Bud Beechwood, a Portland television producer, to do a program on wildfire prevention in forest subdivisions."

I had proposed visiting Crossroads where I had a second home and where there was an active fire prevention program.

Bud arrived by plane and filmed the interviews. When he finished, I suggested that we visit the Bridge Creek Fire near Bend where a 4,300-acre fire was contained. At the Bridge Creek fire camp, we picked up sack lunches before visiting the fire.

As we opened our lunches, we got a radio call. "There's a fire west of Sisters and they're evacuating Crossroads!" Driving back to Sisters, we learned that the fire threatened Tollgate. The smoke column was visible from Bend.

As we reached the west side of Tollgate, so did the fire. It had spread from the Cold Springs Cut-off road a mile and a half away.

The smoky sky was as black as night; it was difficult for Bud to film. Harold Barclay showed up and offered to drive Bud up the fire's south side for better filming.

As the crowning fire reached the mainline, it jumped the road and entered Tollgate, threatening many homes. Fire engines from every Central Oregon fire agency were there.

Leo, Bud and I walked the fire, watching homeowners on roofs with water hoses and moving out possessions. While Bud filmed, Leo calmly narrated, explaining challenges faced by firefighters. Air tankers above us were making retardant drops on the fire. At times, we ducked behind trees to avoid being hit.

The fire moved through Tollgate headed for Highway 20 and the west edge of Sisters. There wasn't time for ODOT approval to close the highway; the order was simply given to "shut it down."

Bulldozers worked beside the Tollgate entrance road to provide firefighters space to burn an area to prevent the fire from entering Sisters. Crews were ready to light the fire when the wind stopped -- and so did the fire.

As one firefighter later described it, "The wind quit, the paved roads helped slow the fire, and the houses and fire trucks came out even." About 660 acres were burned, including 15 Tollgate lots. Only two uncompleted structures were damaged, thanks to the hard work of firefighters.

As we caught our breath, a radio message came. "We have a new fire west of Sisters; they may have to evacuate Crossroads!" Bulldozers from the Bridge Creek Fire had been sent to the Tollgate Fire. With that fire nearly contained, they just moved on to the new fire and controlled it at 10 acres.

A suspicious vehicle had been seen in the area where the fires had started. That evening, an Oregon State Policeman stopped a car matching that description and made an arrest. The driver had been drinking and had started the fires.

Bud's program was shown on KOIN-TV and was well received. In the days before remote broadcasting television trucks and helicopter news teams, this was the first "live" film shot of a moving fire in a forest subdivision.

In 1980, Bud Beechwood was presented with a national Smokey Bear Plaque award for his television production.

In 25 years, much of the burned area has healed. The burned lots were marketed as "solar lots," some lands were reforested and only a trace remains of the fire trail along the Tollgate entrance road.

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