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Feb. 26, 2024

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Camp Bonneville neighbors have fire on their minds

Concerns about high fire risk in Camp Bonneville area lead to planning amid cleanup of installation

By , Columbian political reporter
4 Photos
The entrance to Camp Bonneville remains closed to the public during cleanup of munitions left from decades of military training exercises.
The entrance to Camp Bonneville remains closed to the public during cleanup of munitions left from decades of military training exercises. Photo by Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Wildfire season is just beginning, but in November, one neighborhood association in a rural part of Clark County already had fire danger on its mind.

Erin Allee, co-chair of the Proebstel Neighborhood Association, emailed Clark County Manager Shawn Henessee and county Director of Public Works Ahmad Qayoumi regarding Camp Bonneville.

Clark County accepted ownership of the rural military installation in 2011. Since then, the county has been working with the U.S. Army and state Department of Ecology to clean up the lead and unexploded munitions left over from nine decades of military training, with the eventual aim of opening it to the public.

New housing developments have sprung up near Camp Bonneville, a 6-square-mile site east of Vancouver. Allee wrote to county officials raising concerns that fires could affect developed areas and that the area posed particular challenges with its “unique access restrictions.”

Allee asked the county to reach out to the state Department of Natural Resources to ask for additional funding and resources “for a substantive prevention and firefighting plan to be implemented immediately.”

“For our neighbors, the immediacy of this request cannot be understated,” she wrote.

Allee included in her email (obtained through a public records request) a copy of the fire suppression plan for Camp Bonneville. The document noted the added complications posed by the possible presence of unexploded ordnance (bombs, bullets and other explosive weapons that did not explode after being fired) at the site.

Local and state governments along the West Coast are preparing for what’s expected to be another active wildfire season. While Camp Bonneville may pose a unique fire risk, county officials say the situation is manageable. This wildfire season, the Department of Natural Resources has also taken a particular interest in Camp Bonneville as a resource to fight fires elsewhere.

Fires and firepower

Allee didn’t respond to requests for comment, but Kirk VanGelder, the neighborhood’s other co-chair, wrote in an email that neighbors are not aware of wildland fire assessments performed for Camp Bonneville.

“We will keep asking periodically, though,” he wrote.

Jerry Barnett, a Clark County manager overseeing Camp Bonneville, said the cleanup of the site is going well and that crews have recovered hand grenades, 37 mm rockets, 105 mm rounds and bazooka rounds.

Clark County contracts with Weston Solutions for the project. Barnett said the cleanup is in its final phase, working on the western slope of Camp Bonneville. He said that depending on what’s found, work could be finished within a year to 1 1/2 years. After that, he said, the area could be opened to the public after going through planning processes. In the meantime, the area remains wooded and closed off to the public.

“It is a fire risk with any forested area,” Barnett said.

He said that unexploded munitions wouldn’t pose a particular problem if a fire were to break out in Camp Bonneville. According to the county’s website, munitions were generally fired from the western slopes of Camp Bonneville to the east. Barnett said that many of these munitions are concentrated in a roughly 500-acre portion in the south of Camp Bonneville that he said is the only “no-go area.”

“It’s impossible to clear it to a level of safety that we would allow the public in there,” Barnett said.

If a fire were to break out in Camp Bonneville, he said, crews would just fight the blaze in surrounding areas.

Fires outside

In January, Kevin Tyler, county lands manager, sent a response to Allee letting her know that the county was taking the request seriously and would raise the issue with the Department of Natural Resources.

Around the same time, the county was also in talks with the department about using Camp Bonneville to temporarily station a fire suppression helicopter there during the summer.

In May, the Clark County Council unanimously voted to authorize Henessee to sign an agreement with the Department of Natural Resources. The agreement would allow the department to use the area as a forward operating base for helicopter firefighting services. The agreement would limit crews to the barracks, parking area and airfield near the camp’s main entrance. The county will be reimbursed $400 per month by the department, which will also pay for any necessary utilities.

The Department of Natural Resources didn’t answer questions about the fire risk inside the camp or what area crews stationed there will serve. In a statement, Josh Wilund, supervisor at the state Department of Natural Resources, said the proposal to set up in Camp Bonneville was “carefully considered and vetted” and will also “provide significant strategic wildfire protection for state resources” to residents.

“Our base footprint is small, has been thoroughly reviewed for all types of risk by all appropriate entities and absolutely no ground-disturbing intrusive activities have been proposed by our agency,” he said.

During the May 21 council meeting, Henessee said there is a high fire risk in the Camp Bonneville area, but he added, “it’s likely that they are going to be responding to fires outside of Camp Bonneville.”

Columbian political reporter