We All Have a Role in Fire Prevention

By Craig Reed

Truck spraying water on trees.
In July 2017, a tree outside a Lane Electric Cooperative right-of-way and on railroad property caused a fire in Oakridge. One mobile home was lost and several small businesses were threatened. Local authorities quickly got it under control with no additional damage.

The summer fire season is here again, so it is time to be conscious about prevention.

Lane Electric Cooperative’s outside crews received a refresher course in fire science, held a safety meeting, put fire suppression equipment in proper order, and applied for exemptions to work on the power lines during the early stages of fire season.

Lane Electric members also have a responsibility to protect their power source, their homes, and their rural property. They should follow guidelines presented by the Oregon Department of Forestry regarding defensible space around their structures. The general rule is to have a large fuel break of dirt, green vegetation, or dry grass that is less than 4-inches tall around structures.

The destructive and deadly wildfires in Northern California the past few years are reminders that human- or lightning-caused flames can quickly spread. Taking preventive measures in advance is important.

“Out of tragedy comes movement,” says Lane Electric Operations Manager Tony Toncray. “People are more open to severe trimming and removal of trees in the right-of-way areas for the power lines.”

Greg Pierce, safety director for the six-member Cooperative Safety Group, agrees the California fires opened Oregonians’ eyes with regard to wildfires. He says all the fuel on the ground will become extremely flammable with any dry spell.

Firefighting this summer is expected to be negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic as firefighters try to stay healthy, Greg adds.

Joe Raade, division chief for South Lane County Fire & Rescue, says it’s paramount to do property work now.

“That will help control how a fire will spread and the property damage it may cause,” he says. “I think most people are fire wise, fire aware, and will do the things that help alleviate exposure to fire.”

Rural residents should have a fire barrier; trim tree branches away from buildings and roofs; remove vegetation neither fire-resistant nor green; remove leaves and needles from rain gutters, roofs, and decks; and move firewood or debris piles to a safe distance from buildings.

Residential driveways should be clearly marked with an address number and have a clear right-of-way, providing easy access for large fire engines to reach structures.

“One of the most important things people have control over is the defensible space they have around their home and property,” says Rainbow Plews, fire chief for the Upper McKenzie Rural Fire Protection District. “I think people need encouragement and even education about what to clear, what to water, what to plant when building a home, or putting in landscaping. Those factors make a huge difference when a fire comes through.”

Residents with questions can call their fire district or the Oregon Department of Forestry for resources, or ask for a staff person to visit and provide an analysis.

“People need to take that education and then apply it at home,” Rainbow says.

The time to prepare is before a fire happens, she adds. Houses with good defensible space have survived past wildfires.

“If defensible space has been prepared, it makes our job so much easier and safer,” she says.

At Lane Electric, work on the co-op’s overhead lines is done throughout the year. Vegetation management in rights-of-way is on a three-year rotation. Checking for hazard trees and branches and their possible removal is on a two-year rotation. A tree or branch falling onto a power line can create a spark that can fall to the ground and start a fire.

“Inspection is paramount,” says Skip Shipman, Lane Electric’s rights-of-way coordinator. “We drive, use a four-wheeler, or hike the lines looking for trees that could possibly start a wildfire. It’s quite the involved process.”

Skip adds that Lane Electric members are essential in the inspection process because they can report danger trees.

“We rely heavily on members making us aware when there is a problem or a potential problem, especially after a storm comes through,” Skip says. “They do an outstanding job in calling and reporting hazards.”

As the fire season progresses through hotter, drier months, the co-op’s crews and the contract crews are pulled from extreme fire areas and do more work in or near rural communities where the fire potential is less.

In his 32 years in the electrical industry as a lineman, foreman, and manager, Tony Toncray says no crew he knows of has created a spark that started a wildfire.

“But we carry that risk and fear of a fire all the time,” he says. “There’s always the potential, so being as preventive as possible for all of us is very important.”

Protect Your Home

7 ways residents can reduce the risk that their homes and property will become fuel for a wildfire.

Clear — Clear off pine needles, dead leaves, and anything that can burn from your roofline, gutters, decks, porches, patios, and along fence lines. Falling embers will have nothing to burn.

Store Away — Store away furniture cushions, rattan mats, potted plants, and other decorations from decks, porches, and patios. These items catch embers and help ignite your home if you leave them outside.

Screen and Seal — Wind-borne embers can get into homes easily through vents and other openings and burn the home from the inside out. Walk around your house to see what openings you can screen or temporarily seal up.

Rake — Embers landing in mulch that touches your house, deck, or fence is a big fire hazard. Rake out any landscaping mulch to at least five feet away.

Trim — Trim back any shrubs or tree branches that come closer than 5 feet to the house and attachments, and any overhanging branches.

Remove — Walk around your house and remove anything within 30 feet that could burn, such as woodpiles, spare lumber, vehicles, and boats – anything that can act as a large fuel source.

Close — If ordered to evacuate, make sure all windows and doors are closed tightly, and seal up any pet doors. Many homes are destroyed by embers entering those openings and burning the house from the inside out.

NFPA has many more tips and safety recommendations on its website.