As the Fire Marshal for the City of Bend, Oregon, I have long been involved in working closely with neighborhoods at extreme risk from wildfire in their efforts to gain official status in the Firewise Communities/USA® Recognition Program.
One such community, Rimrock West, a subdivision in the Deschutes River canyon, is densely covered with sagebrush, junipers and ponderosa pines. Forty-three homes sit on narrow roads with one access route out of the community, which is a scary wildfire scenario during Bend’s hot summer months.
Rimrock West residents know far too often with the summer season ahead and the chance of a wildfire at their front door step, a wildfire threat is very real. They know most of the time the cause of wildfire is something they as residents can’t control, whether it is a lightning strike, a downed power line or a discarded cigarette. But together, we decided to tackle the issue. These residents learned through local fire officials (and through interagency cooperation) that their homes, property and the values of the community could be spared if they took action now before the fire starts. For these residents, it’s not if the fire will happen, but when? And will they be prepared?
The Rimrock West neighborhood is over 30 years old, when, back in the day Home Owner Associations (HOA’s) were required to leave brush intact to keep the “natural” vegetation landscape. They were also instructed to construct their homes with wood shake roofs to blend in with the “natural” environment. But these folks have discovered today, from a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) official; their environment is not “natural” and the vegetation is overgrown. To make matters worse, trees have been competing for moisture and the ‘natural’ evolution of the fire ecosystem has not been a part of this area for decades, leaving overgrown brush to contend with. Bend Deputy Fire Marshal Johannsen recommended to residents that homes with wood covered roofs were the most vulnerable during a wildfire due to flying embers from burning trees and brush during a fast moving wildfire.
It was time for action; the HOA Board knew they had to do something to protect their community and what better way than to get involved with the national Firewise Communities/USA Recognition Program? Board members, with assistance from the Oregon Department of Forestry, organized work days to clear natural vegetation including the highly flammable juniper shrubs and mugo pines that were planted by landscape companies. They pruned low hanging limbs from trees and removed the existing dead hazard trees. The goal was to break the continuity between ground fuels and ladder fuels to keep a wildfire small and low to the ground and out of the trees, and from spreading to the homes, to give firefighters the best outcome when fighting a fire. Rimrock West residents now know that since they have done the work to make their home and property defensible from wildfire, it also gives firefighters a safer location to make a stand to protect themselves and their equipment.
The end result, after 724 hours of labor involving 15-20 Rimrock West residents over several work days, was a manicured park-like setting that is a more “natural” landscape than before. As a neighborhood in a forest setting, the residents reduced the possibility of an inevitable wildfire from igniting many of their trees and more importantly their homes. Not only have they become a recognized Firewise community, but the community serves as a fuel break between a wildfire and the next community up the hill. A quote from a proud Rimrock West resident, Stephen Clark, said, “It’s a wonderful example of what private and public collaboration can achieve.” A true statement indeed! We all have to come together to safeguard our personal property by taking personal action to protect what is important to us and our neighbors. What better way than becoming a recognized Firewise community!