14 fuel pumps spared from blaze
By Jessica R. Wheeler
The TA Express Travel Center on the west end of Biggs Junction caught fire early Tuesday morning, reducing the building to rubble in a matter of hours.
The fire was reported by staff about 5 a.m. Tuesday, with a dryer vent being the possible source of the blaze.
An official investigation into the cause of the fire will be carried out by the state fire marshal, Sherman County Undersheriff James Burgett said, but he’s not sure how soon.
“If it’s still hot and smoldering, they’re not going to go into it quite yet,” Burgett said.
Employees were safely evacuated from the building, and no injuries were reported, he said.
Crews from North Gilliam Fire, North Sherman Fire, Moro Fire, South Sherman Fire and Sherman County Ambulance responded to the blaze. They had the situation under control within a couple hours, and by 9 a.m. the area was in mop-up.
Sherman County Sheriff Brad Lohrey was on site shortly after the fire started and captured some photos just as the building became fully engulfed.
Unfortunately, the building was completely destroyed by the time the blaze was contained, with only a shell of the frame remaining.
“It’s gone,” Burgett said. “The building is going to be a total loss. Thankfully the crews did save the (fuel) pumps on both sides.”
Sherman County Emergency Services Director Dana Pursley-Haner said crews initially were concerned about the fire spreading to the fuel pumps, but they were able to quickly secure the location and contain the blaze.
The TA Travel Center in Biggs is a relatively new addition to Sherman County’s busy truck stop along Interstate 84 and Highway 97, with construction wrapping up just a few years ago. At the time of the fire, it housed a large Chevron convenience store as well as a Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Krispy Krunchy Chicken.
According to a report Tuesday from Columbia Community Connection News in The Dalles, the TA Express franchise is owned by Biggs Petroleum LLC, based in Salem. Biggs Petroleum is owned by three Oregonians, Tony Singh, Nirmal Virk and Don Sidhu, who have similar businesses in and around Salem and Albany, Sidhu said. The Biggs Junction site has 14 fueling islands – seven for vehicles and seven for semi-trucks, all of which appear to be undamaged by the fire.
The Biggs Service District does not have a municipal water system. Instead, it is served by privately owned water systems, each with its own storage and varying levels of treatment. Additionally, there is no connectivity between the systems, and no capacity to provide sufficient water volume in case of a fire, according to a news release from U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development dated August 2020.
New building permits are no longer being issued until adequate fire flows can be provided to commercial areas within the district, the statement said.
The USDA’s Rural Development program has invested $2.1 million into the project, with an end goal of drilling a well to supply drinking water for this very small community that primarily serves as a rest and refueling stop for traffic along the two major highways. A pump station will be constructed to provide well controls and water treatment, and a 400,000-gallon reservoir will be installed.
“I saw the fire crews hauling trucks of water from Rufus to Biggs,” Burgett said. “They have these portable pools they dump the water into and then pump the water to their trucks.”
EMS Director Pursley-Haner confirmed that water was delivered from Rufus with tenders to the Port-a-Tank to refill the engines that supply water lines.
She said even if crews had been able to access water hydrants, the blaze tore through the building so quickly that hydrants might not have made much difference.
“Unfortunately, the building likely would not have survived,” she said.
As an unincorporated municipality, Biggs Service District is its own separate entity, but it is currently managed by the county acting as its board of directors, Sherman County Judge Joe Dabulskis said.
He added that the water services project upgrade is well under way, and in fact is getting close to completion.
“They’ve laid the pipe, the fire hydrants are all set, they’ve dug the well, but the water tank is in progress,” Dabulskis said. “The tank is the next step.”
Dabulskis remembers attending the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new TA Travel Center in April 2020 said he was very disappointed Tuesday to hear about the fire that destroyed it.
“They took pride in their facility,” he said, noting that it was always clean, inside and out. He also mentioned how many times he’s driven by at 6 a.m. and seen workers outside picking up trash on the grounds so it didn’t blow up onto the hillside. “They’re good people, and it’s a huge loss for the area.”