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Salon.com News | Black copters over Oregon

Black copters over Oregon
President Bush visits rural Oregon to tout his forest plan. Suddenly, huge fires burn. Now a small town is consumed by conspiracy theories.

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By Bill Donahue

Sept. 8, 2003  |  SISTERS, Ore. -- The helicopters were indeed black, and when they came thwocking through the clear blue skies above Redmond, Oregon on the afternoon of August 19, Don Berry happened to be having a slow day selling campers and fifth wheels at Courtesy RV. "We just stood there in the lot, my friend Chuck and me, watching," he says before launching into a bit of detail that government sources will not confirm. "They were Chinook military helicopters--huge things with round noses. There were three of them, and they were moving in tight formation, lollygagging over the woods, zigzagging near [the town of] Sisters and out toward Black Butte," some 25 miles to the northwest.

The copters were in Central Oregon, officials from the U.S. Forest Service would later note, to do reconnaissance in advance of an August 21 visit to the dry, wooded region by President George W. Bush. "They were doing routine surveillance," according to Ron Pugh, a Forest Service special agent. The president planned to speak in Camp Sherman, a little town near Black Butte, and to call, controversially, for the "thinning" of 20 million acres of fire-prone public forests.

Don Berry is detached from the fray over Bush's Healthy Forest Initiative, but as the choppers flew near Sisters that day, he gazed skyward for much of their 90-minute flight. "They came right over the top of us," he remembers, "and we watched them land, and then I looked up at the mountains, where they'd flown."

"Chuck," Berry said at that point, "I hope what I'm seeing out there is a cloud."

It was not a cloud. That afternoon, Forest Service lookouts detected high columns of smoke rising from what would soon be called the Bear Butte and Booth Fires. The fires have cost taxpayers $15 million in firefighting fees; forced hundreds of homeowners to temporarily evacuate; closed roads; and thrashed Central Oregon's tourist economy. As yet, though, no one knows how the fires started; no one can say whether the helicopters had anything to do with the flames.

Which means that speculation is spreading like, well, wildfire.
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