Seized wheel was ground on pavement, sending hot metal flakes onto dry grass
By Marcy Stamper
An investigation into the Rising Eagle Road Fire has concluded that the August 2014 fire was caused when a wheel on an improperly maintained utility trailer stopped rotating and dragged on the pavement, sending superheated metal flakes onto the side of the road, where they ignited extremely dry vegetation.
The 82-page, seven-month investigation was completed March 3 by Greg Saltsman, a wildland fire investigator with the northeast region of the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Saltsman arrived at the scene of the fire just after 6 p.m. on Aug. 1, scarcely more than four hours after it began. The fire burned 579 acres, almost all private land, between Winthrop and Twisp, and destroyed 24 structures, including 10 houses.
The empty light-duty utility trailer that was the focus of DNR’s investigation belongs to David Ford of Mazama and was being towed on Aug. 1 by Nancy Leland, Ford’s wife, when the right wheel seized, causing the tire to blow out. Unaware of the flat, Leland continued driving south on Highway 20 with the wheel grinding along the pavement before pulling over, according to Saltsman’s written account.
Leland’s sister-in-law, who was following in another vehicle, tried to get Leland’s attention by honking and waving, but Leland had traveled 935 feet on the worn-down rim before she became aware of the malfunction, pulled over and unhitched the trailer, according to Saltsman’s account. Photographs in the report show a wheel with two flat, angular sides where the metal was worn away.
“It is suspected that had the trailer’s owner ensured that the trailer was adequately maintained for safely towing on a public road, the wildland fire could have been prevented,” wrote Saltsman.
At the request of DNR, the trailer was impounded in the evening of Aug. 1 by an Okanogan County sheriff’s deputy and towed to Omak as evidence. An inspection by Choice Automotive & RV in Omak on Aug. 20 found that the trailer’s right-side wheel bearings were seized to the axle shaft and that the wheel and hub would not rotate.
In his report, Saltsman described finding charred rocks and vegetation, sooting and white ash on the east side of Highway 20 near milepost 198 at what he terms primary and secondary ignition points. Saltsman ultimately found a single tiny shard of metal near each of the ignition points that he determined had come from the ground-down wheel. He also found abrasion marks on the highway that he said were caused by the grinding of the wheel.
“This friction and heat-related mechanical seizure did not allow the wheel assembly to rotate properly,” wrote Saltsman. “As the trailer was towed, the wheel assembly was drug, eventually causing the wheel’s tire to rupture. Once enough rubber from the tire was worn away, abrasion and wear continued into the metal wheel itself, thus producing a metal-to-pavement grinding action.”
“The lack of appropriate general maintenance, specifically proper lubrication … ultimately led to an equipment failure … Hot metal fragments eventually separated from the failed wheel assembly of the utility trailer and served as an ignition source. The fragments landed in a receptive fuel bed of fine dead grass causing a wildfire to be ignited near mile marker 198 on SR 20 during the early afternoon of August 1, 2014,” Saltsman concluded.
The wildfire risk on Aug. 1 was very high — it was 96 degrees just before 2 p.m. when the fire was first reported and 100 degrees within the hour. Grasses and brush were exceptionally dry, and winds were from 12 to 22 miles per hour. The investigation report states that there was a 90-percent chance of ignition.
Even wind from passing traffic would have fanned the fire. “All elements were present for an explosive fire spread scenario,” wrote Saltsman.
The fire was attacked by an all-out effort that afternoon and night by firefighters from Okanogan County Fire District 6 and by crews diverted from the Carlton Complex Fire, including 17 helicopters, two air tankers and a DC-10 that dropped retardant.
In interviews with Saltsman in mid-August, Ford and Leland explained that they used the trailer to carry rafts for river excursions. On Aug. 1, they had dropped a raft at the Winthrop Barn for a float trip.
Leland was towing the empty trailer to the place where they planned to end their trip. Her sister-in-law, Pamela Leland, and Pamela’s daughter were following in another vehicle to take them back to the starting point at the barn, according to Saltsman’s report.
Nancy said she pulled over after she saw Pamela waving. They unhitched the trailer and saw a plume of smoke behind them and Nancy called 911 to report the fire. Nancy told Saltsman that she thought sparks from the flat tire may have caused the fire, he wrote.
The mechanic with Choice Automotive & RV in Omak who inspected the trailer said it was “in a severe state of disrepair and not legal for use in its current condition and there was a lack of lubrication and severe water contamination in the both [sic] wheel bearings,” according to Saltsman’s account. In addition, the trailer was missing the right tail/turn light and the left tail/turn light was secured with duct tape and was aimed toward the ground.
“In my professional opinion the right hub & bearing assembly seized up & wheel quit turning, causing tire to skid down the road & grind the wheel flat,” wrote Choice Automotive mechanic Michael Roberts in his inspection report. “In order for a wheel to have that much material ground off the trailer had to have been towed for a significant distance with the hub seized.”
In an interview with Saltsman, Pamela Leland described honking and waving to get Nancy’s attention after the tire blew out. She said she saw a spark or two from the right-hand side of the trailer once the rubber was gone but that the tire had remained attached even after the metal was in contact with the pavement.
Saltsman consulted a manual for a similar trailer made by the same manufacturer, which recommended that to prevent damage to the bearings, the wheel bearings should be disassembled and repacked with grease every 1,000 miles or annually. (He said a manual for the exact trailer model couldn’t be found.)
Ford told Saltsman he had owned the trailer since it was new and that he used it to transport a river raft in the summer and a snowmobile in the winter. Ford said he did not back the trailer into the water to unload rafts and had greased the wheel bearings once, according to Saltsman’s report.
The investigation report includes a sworn statement by then–Okanogan County Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Rodriguez, who spoke with Nancy and Pamela Leland, whom he found stopped alongside Highway 20 while he was evacuating residents during the fire. The Lelands described the situation and Pamela’s efforts to signal Nancy. “Nancy then commented about how bad she felt about starting the fire,” wrote Rodriguez.
Catalytic converter — another theory
Saltsman also followed up on a statement from Ford that Ford had heard from two individuals that the fire had been caused by heat from a catalytic converter on a pick-up truck. This theory had been mentioned in comments on an online bulletin board, wrote Saltsman.
In February 2015, Saltsman spoke with Hank and Christine Rogers of Winthrop, whom Ford said he had been told had posted the statement about the catalytic converter online. Ford said the information had been attributed to Hank Rogers by two other Methow Valley residents in two separate conversations.
In the February interview, Christine Rogers told Saltsman that she went to look at the fire about 20 minutes after hearing the first reports on the police scanner. Both Hank and Christine Rogers said Hank was not in the area when the fire was reported and they did not know how the information provided to Ford by the two other individuals could have originated with them, wrote Saltsman. The Rogerses said they had not posted anything online and do not use social media.
Saltsman also spoke with Marcia Butchart of Twisp, who on Aug. 1 had posted a response to a question on Facebook about how the fire had started. Butchart told Saltsman she had run into Rogers and that he told her the fire had started when a man pulled his truck into tall grass to take a picture and that the catalytic converter had ignited the grass. This is the account she posted on Facebook, along with a statement that she did not know where Rogers had gotten his information. Neither Hank nor Christine Rogers recalled what Butchart described and posted on Facebook, wrote Saltsman.
Saltsman also ruled out other sources of ignition, such as lightning or fireworks.
In late October, Saltsman called an attorney representing Ford to arrange to return the trailer (except for the wheel and tire, which were being retained as evidence) but Ford was out of town. Neither Ford nor a representative has made arrangements for the return of the trailer, so it remains in DNR’s possession.
By law, DNR must investigate all wildfires on state and private land the agency protects. DNR is also required to recover costs associated with the suppression of wildfires if those fires were considered to be criminally or negligently caused, according to the agency. Any funds recovered go into Washington’s general fund, not to DNR.
The Washington attorney general is still reviewing the final investigation report and will provide legal advice to DNR, according to the communications director for the attorney general. No charges have been filed.
Ford said this week that he and his wife don’t believe the flat tire caused the fire. He said they are working with an attorney and are not able to say anything further.