City News

ATV likely sparked Liberty Fire last August, investigation finds

Riding an all-terrain vehicle through a dry field during fire season likely sparked the Liberty Fire last August, according to a Salem Fire Department investigation.

Investigators concluded the fire was sparked accidentally. The fast-spreading fire in south Salem burned across 50 acres and caused an estimated $1 million in property damage, according to the recently-disclosed report. The report didn’t itemize the damage and department officials said they had none.

The fire was first reported on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023 at 2:48 p.m. in the 6300 block of South Liberty Road. About an hour later, residents west of South Liberty road and South Jory Hill Road were directed to evacuate. In all, 630 households and businesses had to clear out from the path of the fire. No injuries were reported.

The investigative report used witness accounts to pinpoint the likely source of the fire, which required firefighters from several agencies plus air tankers to contain.

Kathleen Edwards, who lost two outbuildings in the fire, told Deputy Fire Marshal Justin Guinan that she looked out her window that day to see ATVs riding in the field. She lives on rural property to the south of the field that overlooks it.

It was a dry and windy day with a high temperature of 80 degrees, according to National Weather Service data.

“She mentioned that she recalled being worried it would start a fire,” the report said.. “Mrs. Edwards then noticed that there were black spots that were starting behind the ATVs and realized that a fire was beginning. She then grabbed her things and evacuated her home.”

Guinan reported that Terry Kelly, the property’s owner, told a fire official the day of the fire that kids were driving the ATVs in the field at the north end of his property. The property is on Liberty Road South near Mildred Lane.

Kelly said they’d taken a lunch break and returned to a column of smoke in the field.

“Mr. Kelly went over to where the smoke was, and the fire was beyond his control already. He stated to me that the ATVs had spark arrestors on them, and there was no way that they started the fire,” Guinan wrote.

Spark arrestors are designed to prevent engines from emitting flammable debris through the exhaust.

No charges have been filed against Kelly. He did not respond to a request for comment from Salem Reporter.

At the time, Kelly told Guinan that they’d been finding glass in the field, which he thought could have started the fire. Guinan ruled that out after not finding glass where the fire started.

Guinan also ruled out an electrical source for the fire because there were no nearby power lines.

He said hot exhaust likely ignited the dry vegetation.

“A recreational vehicle in a dry field is a competent ignition source,” he wrote. “This hypothesis cannot be ruled out.”

Quickly after it sparked, excavators with Salem-based Emery & Sons Construction used their heavy equipment to help slow the spread, intervention that Salem Emergency Manager Joe Hutchinson at the time said saved homes and helped contain the fire.

About 70 fire rigs from seven agencies responded to the Liberty Fire, including the Salem Fire Department, Marion County Fire District No. 1, and fire crews from Keizer, Stayton, Turner, Jefferson and Mount Angel.

Responders contained the blaze by Wednesday evening, around 7:15 p.m., and it was fully out by Thursday morning, Aug. 24., and local property owners like Joyce Stringer spent the day tamping down hot spots in blackened fields

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.