Rural Communities Prioritize Wildfire Preparedness

By Craig Reed

Contract crews remove brush, known as small-diameter ladder fuels, along 3 miles of roadways and across 360 acres in the Oakridge-Westfir area. Photo courtesy of Southern Willamette Forest Collaborative

Wildfires in recent years have resulted in more concern and awareness for future natural disasters and extreme weather events. Wildfire preparedness has become a popular buzzword.

“The goal is to be a fire-adaptive community, a community that is resilient in the face of wildfire,” says Oakridge resident Sarah Altemus-Pope.

Oakridge, Upper McKenzie, and Row River are rural communities in Lane Electric Cooperative’s service areas that are surrounded by forests. During the last 10 years, they’ve each suffered catastrophic wildfires that have burned multiple structures to the ground, killed trees, severely damaged the soil, and forced thousands of residents to evacuate their rural properties.

The 2020 Oregon wildfire season was the most destructive on state record. Fires killed at least 11 people, burned more than 1 million acres, and destroyed thousands of homes.

“Seeing big fires has been a major motivator to be more aware,” says Walt Bernard, a Dorena resident in the Row River area. “The evidence is in how much people talk about it. It’s more common talk now compared to 10 years ago when it was only common among the experts. Wildfires in the summer here are now at the top of the list of concerns for homes and lives.”

Row River volunteer firefighters are certified in wildfire response and developing evacuation and shelter plans for their community.

Rural property owners are encouraged to create defensible space around their structures as suggested by the National Fire Protection Association Firewise USA program. That involves keeping lawns green, mowing dried grass and weeds, stacking firewood and other wood products away from structures, cleaning rain gutters and roofs of pine needles and leaves, and having hoses, sprinklers, and water quickly available to wet down structures and nearby ground.

It’s also important to have a to-go bag and an evacuation plan. Walt, the president of the Row River Fire Response, reminds people that they have to plan ahead to take care of themselves and possibly help their neighbors.

“1,000 people can’t call 911 at the same time about a fire and expect 1,000 responses,” Walt says. On May 21, the measure to establish Row River Rural Fire Protection District passed with a 242 versus 150 vote. The district will have the authority, equipment and personnel to quickly respond to fires in the community, ideally to keep fires from spreading into major events. The district also includes 911 services and partnerships with other fire districts.

“The key is the initial attack on wildfires, catching them early,” he says. “No district can perform to the needed level without mutual response from other districts. I’m going to help you, and you’ll help me.”

Row River volunteer firefighters are working on evacuation and shelter plans that help residents know where to go, Walt says. A plan to develop access to designated water sources for resupplying firefighting equipment is also being discussed.

In the Oakridge-Westfir area, the Southern Willamette Forest Collaborative has been a leader in promoting fire prevention activities. In 2020, it helped form the Oakridge Firewise Community and the Greater Oakridge Area Firewise Community.

Grants have funded the treatment of 360 acres, removing small diameter ladder fuels along 3 miles of roadways and in several other areas as well as improving defensible space around numerous structures.

The collaborative has also secured funding through 2027 to continue to provide defensible space work for several hundred acres and homes. Another grant provided the city of Oakridge with the equipment and labor to treat all city-owned property.

“I think there is still a lot of work to do, but we’re making good headway,” says Sarah, executive director of the collaborative. “People have been very willing to get work done on their properties.”

In September 2023, Row River Fire Response volunteer firefighters caught the Circling Hawk area brush fire early and extinguished it. Photo courtesy of Row River Fire Response

A state grant has helped the Oakridge-Westfir area create a new position for a community resilience project manager to coordinate and oversee fire prevention projects.

In the Upper McKenzie area, Margaret Beilharz, a resident of Rainbow, started a Facebook page called McKenzie Wildfire in 2017 to help keep residents informed of fire prevention methods, fire danger and fire activity. She says since the Holiday Farm Fire in 2020, the awareness of fire danger “has become very apparent.”

McKenzie Community Communication was created after the fire to promote a nonprofit general mobile radio system that could help residents stay informed of fire activities. Applications for Firewise program grants through the county and state have also been submitted.

The nonprofit McKenzie Community Center has applied for a resiliency grant to improve the building so it can be used as a base for fire management teams, a gathering place for residents to receive fire updates, a shelter, and a supply base for food and fuel.

“Nobody wants to prepare or to think about these events happening again, but it is a necessity,” Margaret says. “We need to plan ahead to know what our needs will be in case of wildfire.”