Probe zeros in on motorist who caused July 4 wildfire

A July 4 fire off Stratton Creek Road was caused by a pickup truck leaking transmission fluid, according to a tow-truck operator who assisted the driver.

Rich Luker, owner of Three Boys Classic Towing in Grants Pass, said a man and his family were going up a hill on Stratton Creek Road and came across another car, so they pulled to the side and stopped.

The transmission was leaking fluid, and the truck caught fire. The man told Luker he put out the fire in the vehicle, but the wildfire took off in the grass. The man drove away from the fire, the engine quit and he called 911. Three Boys was contacted, and Luker responded to tow the truck. He said from where the truck had stopped, the fire was visible and "going pretty good" by then.

The fire burned 154 acres and drew about 200 firefighters, including engine crews, along with airplanes and helicopters that made dozens of drops in mountainous terrain about 15 miles northwest of Grants Pass. The column was visible from Grants Pass.

"He and his family were going camping, and it kind of took a turn for the worse," Luker said. "His story sounded legitimate. He was an upfront guy. He paid for the tow with cash."

The Oregon Department of Forestry acknowledged that the fire was started by a vehicle, but during investigations, the agency doesn't provide details.

"We have several investigators. They are in the process of sniffing it out," said Rick Dryer, Grants Pass Unit forester for the ODF. "I think they have a suspect."

Anyone judged to be willful, malicious or negligent in starting a wildfire can be found liable for all costs of firefighting, Dryer said. The Stratton Creek fire cost just over $1 million, he added.

During regulated fire-season closures, such as those in place now, violators could be found negligent. In this case, the driver was not driving on an unimproved road, so was not negligent in that sense.

"Had they been somewhere up in the boondocks on a road all grassed over, that's a violation," he said.

Dryer added that the person or persons responsible for last year's Slate Creek fire have not been apprehended. That fire, about 12 miles west of Grants Pass, burned 160 acres in early September and cost $1.5 million.

The fire appeared to be related to stolen vehicles found stripped and abandoned in the area of the fire's origin. A burned-out motorcycle and generator also were found there.

The 115-acre Beacon Hill fire that lit up the hill above Grants Pass on May 31 also was caused by a vehicle, on nearby Interstate 5, but Dryer said "it would take an act of God" to find the responsible vehicle now. When a catalytic converter goes out, it can send out burning chunks, but the driver might not even notice, he said.

The 565-acre North River Road fire in August 2011 also was started by a vehicle, according to the ODF, this time on Interstate 5 just east of Rogue River. That case is also unsolved.

Reach Daily Courier reporter Jeff Duewel at 541-474-3720 or jduewel@thedailycourier.com


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