By Gordon Gregory, Correspondent The Oregonian
Agency mobilizing to handle Rainbow event. The Forest Service has mustered up a team of 90 to prepare for the Rainbows' arrival at the Ochoco mountains
PRINEVILLE -- Prineville Middle School has been turned into command central.
Walk down the main hall, and you pass doors marked logistics, communications, law enforcement and public information. Behind those doors, people are busy at computers or radios. They are surrounded by charts and huge maps, memos and notices.
The crackle of radio traffic echoes, and men and women in uniform walk with purpose where children normally scamper.
This is the headquarters for the U.S. Forest Service's 90-person mobilization to oversee the Rainbow Family gathering in the mountains about 30 miles northeast.
"It's similar to a forest fire," said Dave Johnson, deputy incident commander of the operation, describing the agency's response.
The command structure is identical to what would be in place if the Ochoco mountains were ablaze, instead of merely full of an expected crowd of 20,000 tie-dyed campers for the next couple of weeks.
And like a response to a forest fire, the effort is expensive. The Forest Service has budgeted $500,000 to oversee the Rainbows' annual celebration, which has occurred on federal forests across the country every year since 197.
Although many of the Forest Service employees dispatched to Prineville come from Oregon forests, others are from Washington, D.C., Tennessee, North Carolina, Colorado and Idaho.
The small army of Forest Service employees set up radio and cell phone links in the mountains, handle public and agency communications, round up supplies -- everything from housing to horses -- and keep payroll. Just coordinating the activity of all these workers is a task.
"Managing this team, keeping the whole thing running, is a big deal," said Johnson, a fire management officer on Western Washington's Olympic National Forest.
Johnson is one of three people the Forest Service has decided will be permanently assigned to coordinate agency response to the annual gathering.
In the past, each forest had to reinvent the book on how to manage the Rainbow gathering. Johnson said keeping the same overhead team should make the effort easier for the forests confronted with the annual pilgrimage.
"We're trying to give some continuity in managing these events from year to year," Johnson said.
It also could allow the agency to consider whether its management structure is the most efficient, he said.
For example, some have questioned the need for the more than 50 law enforcement officers working this gathering.
John Carpenter, the Forest Service official in charge of law enforcement, said there have been no serious incidents so far. Officers have located 10 runaway youths, cited a number of minors for being in possession of alcohol and cited others for possessing marijuana or for various traffic infractions.
Capt. Dennis Dougherty of the Oregon State Police is part of a 20-trooper contingent working the celebration.
"Actually, it's going very well," he said. If the pattern continues, some officers could be sent back to their home stations.
Johnson noted that the Rainbows, who have been meeting in these annual events since 1972, have a good internal organization.
They set up water systems, latrines, kitchens, a medical unit and a children's area, and they have an internal security force. They also have a good reputation for cleaning and rehabilitating the area once most people move off.
Johnson said part of the reason for the large mobilization is to ensure that serious problems are averted while natural resources are protected.