My recent Firewise travels took me to Benton County, Oregon. I met up with Oregon Department of Forestry representatives including State Firewise Liaison Kris Babbs and Community Wildfire Forester Blake McKinley to visit Pioneer Village, one of the local Firewise Communities.
Pioneer Village sits in the “Valley” on the west side of the Cascade Mountain Range and on the east slope of the Coastal Mountains, just outside of Corvallis Oregon home of the Oregon State University Beavers. This part of the state receives on average over 40 inches of precipitation each year where vegetation grows tall and green and if anything sits long enough it will begin to turn a reddish brown color through a very slow oxidation process, or into a brilliant green colored material which is often called moss. So why anyone would be interested in wildfire safety in this climate? Some local residents would say they have a larger chance of flood or earthquake than a wildfire. Some might even say they are living in an “Asbestos Forest”.
Large fires in this area are not as common as other regions but when the fires do get big in this area of the state, the fires are huge! For instance, some of the largest wildfires Oregon endured in the past 100 years have been near the coast. The Great Tillamook fires (1933, 1939, 1945 and 1951) in the Northern Coast Range burned over 550 square miles collectively. More recently the Biscuit Fire of 2002 burned nearly another 500,000 acres in the Siskiyou National Forest near Gold Beach.
So I ask myself, is there a wildfire threat in the “Asbestos Forest”? Yes indeed, and I might add that all big fires start small. The neighbor may be burning their debris, or an unattended campfire, or an uncontrolled firework. But the cause may not be as important as how one can mitigate or control the direction of an uncontrolled wildfire. Neighborhood residents can make a difference where a wildfire may spread and what it may damage.
Kathy Butler, Chair of the Pioneer Village Firewise Community says reducing your risk starts now, before your wildfire season starts. She said one of Pioneer Village Firewise Community projects was to chip the vegetation and resurface their common area trails with the chipped byproduct. Another Firewise Community resident, Beverly Salvatore, was a gracious host and invited our crew to her home for refreshments during this tour. She explained what sealed the deal with the realtor for the purchase of her home was the enormous trees around the home. She closed the deal without even visiting the site! Beverly’s said her values were the old growth trees and not so much the home. Beverly stated what better way to preserve the big trees than becoming an active participant in the Firewise Program.
What I found on this tour was the residents of Pioneer Village probably do the same mitigation work as many other Firewise Communities. They conduct annual neighborhood cleanups, enhance road and water systems, mitigate fuels within their common areas, continue to reduce the risk around their home and maybe even change some of the structural features to promote fire safety.
But what may be different in this Firewise Community than other areas of the state are the challenges for Chair Kathy Butler. Due to the lack of repeated wildfires and the additional wet weather, keeping her neighbors from becoming complacent about the danger of wildfire is her challenge. Kathy has accomplished this by keeping the Firewise name as a buzzword in the community and the other benefits that come from neighborhood meetings.
This neighborhood is very active in the Firewise program and now it is just common practice. But Kathy is a little worried. What will happen when she steps down as Chairperson? Will someone from the community step up to take her place and have the same energy and passion for Firewise as she has?
Sustainability of programs is just as important as starting the program in the first place. A succession plan is key. My advice is to elect a Vice Chair. They could be your protégé, the right person to step into the Chair position and fulfill your Firewise mitigation plan and be ready for the next renewal process. Remember, wildfire safety is everyone’s responsibility, from Kathy and her safety committee doing the work on the ground to the local Fire Chief and Oregon Department of Forestry offering leadership in the Firewise Communities/USA program!
Photos, top to bottom: 1) One of many local fire safety messages; 2) Kathy Butler in front of her home in Pioneer Village; 3) Kathy Butler, Chief Phelps and Blake McKinley, ODF Wildfire Forester