Boardman community organizer’s truck catches ‘suspicious’ blaze, local fire rescue says

By Antonio Sierra (OPB)
Nov. 29, 2023 2:32 a.m. Updated: Nov. 29, 2023 9:22 p.m.

Empty car ignited during a legislative visit about Eastern Oregon’s nitrate pollution issue

The burned truck of Rafael Romero, an organizer for Oregon Rural Action. The environmental and social justice group said the truck was set on fire while they were at a meeting informing state lawmakers about persistent nitrate pollution in Eastern Oregon.

The burned truck of Rafael Romero, an organizer for Oregon Rural Action, is shown in this supplied photo. The environmental and social justice group said the truck was set on fire while they were at a meeting informing state lawmakers about persistent nitrate pollution in Eastern Oregon.

Courtesy of Oregon Rural Action

A truck belonging to an organizer against nitrate pollution in Eastern Oregon burned at a Boardman, Oregon, home shortly after three state legislators visited the home Monday as a part of a tour.

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The Boardman Fire Rescue District considers the fire “suspicious” but closed its investigation without determining a cause. No one was injured by the fire, nor did the fire spread beyond the vehicle before firefighters extinguished it.

Oregon Rural Action, a group based out of La Grande that has been active in pushing state officials to address decades of groundwater pollution in Morrow and Umatilla counties, announced the fire in a press release Monday. The group called on local and state authorities to fully investigate the fire and protect its employees.

“The fact that this truck appears to have been intentionally set on fire at the very time we were hosting a delegation of Oregon legislators makes this incident extremely concerning,” Kristin Ostrom, the nonprofit’s executive director, said.

During the past year, the group has hosted prominent officials like U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and Gov. Tina Kotek in Boardman for tours and community meetings about pollution.

Related: Oregon sets ambitious goal for testing nitrates in Umatilla Basin groundwater

Oregon Rural Action coordinated a similar event Monday, this time inviting three state representatives from the Legislature’s BIPOC Caucus. In an interview, Ostrom said Oregon Rural Action organizer Rafael Romero drove his truck to fellow organizer Ana Maria Rodriguez’s home near Boardman to film a promotional video for social media.

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The video features his truck in the background, which has magnets attached to its doors encouraging residents to get their well water tested for nitrates. Romero left his truck at Rodriguez’s home while he helped host the legislators at the Blue Mountain Community College during the afternoon.

The tour would eventually take the legislators to Rodriguez’s home, where she explained how her own well’s high nitrate levels affected her family’s drinking water. The legislators were already back at the college holding a series of meetings when Oregon Rural Action learned that the truck was on fire.

Ostrom said the fire marshal told her that turpentine, a flammable liquid, was found at the scene.

A man leans against a box on a table as he speaks with a woman on the other side.

FILE: Rafael Romero, left, speaks with fellow Oregon Rural Action organizer Zaira Sanchez at a vaccine clinic in Boardman, Ore., on Sept. 2, 2022.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

Boardman Fire Chief Michael Hughes confirmed that firefighters responded to the scene. After investigating the fire, Hughes said the district determined it was suspicious but would leave the cause as “undetermined.”

“There was all sorts of discarded garbage around the vehicle, inside the vehicle,” he said. “That’s what makes it so hard. Who knows if the turpentine was a part of a painting project? There were other items there that could have been considered an accelerant.”

Although Hughes said the district has closed its own investigation, he expects Romero’s car insurance company will start its own review.

Related: All water well owners in the Lower Umatilla Basin offered nitrate testing, Oregon officials say

While the fire district is declining to assign a cause to the fire, Oregon Rural Action drew a connection between its environmental work and the incident.

“We’re deeply concerned this violent action may be a message to rural community members and Oregon Rural Action that we should stop our efforts to secure safe drinking water,” Ostrom said. “Safe drinking water is a fundamental right for all, including rural residents.”

Romero is a well-known figure in Boardman’s Latino community, working the weekends as a DJ at a local Spanish-language radio station and playing an integral role in vaccinating farmworkers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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