In 1996, the Skeleton Fire destroyed 19 houses in the Sundance neighborhood southeast of Bend, including Oliver’s childhood home. That devastating loss is what drives his commitment to wildfire prevention today. He serves on the Deschutes County Project Wildfire steering committee, as well as the Deschutes Rural Fire District #2 (DRFD2) board of directors. And in 2021, Oliver led the effort to earn recognition for Sundance as a Firewise USA community.
The Skeleton fire stimulated leaders in Central Oregon to innovate. For example, Gary Marshall, who currently serves as DRFD2’s executive director, created the Firefree program to provide free disposal of yard debris every spring. Deschutes County and fire districts also incentivize fuel reduction work through grants to Firewise communities. However, this is no longer enough.
“The forest fires of today are different than the fires that put the region on the path to fire preparedness. Seven of the 10 years with the most acreage burned on record in the state have come in the last decade.”“As climate changes fire behavior, resilience efforts seek to keep up,” Bend Bulletin, May 22, 2022
Climate change is fueling more destructive wildfires
Rising temperatures and a historic drought have resulted in a longer season with more destructive wildfire. The 2020 fire season was especially devastating, with the Santiam Canyon and Almeda fires burning more than 3000 homes. Entire towns were leveled. Nine people died. And the entire state of Oregon was choked by smoke for months. These sort of fire events are increasingly becoming the norm rather than the exception across the American West, and we need to step up our efforts to prevent disaster from striking Deschutes County.
This means we can no longer rely on the personal responsibility of individual homeowners to keep neighborhoods safe. While many residents take reasonable steps to harden their homes and create defensible space, many others cannot or simply will not do so. If one home ignites, that raises the risk to neighboring homes, and homeowner insurance rates – already stratospherically high – go up for everyone. Protecting our communities requires setting clear expectations for homeowners, providing assistance to those who need it, and holding accountable those who refuse to take simple measures to protect their communities from wildfire.
Protect homes by reducing flammable fuels
There are many ways this can be accomplished. For example, the city of Flagstaff, Arizona, has a Wildland Fire Management program within its Community Risk Reduction Program, which in addition to a forest health supervisors and firewise specialist (similar to Deschutes County’s forester and fire adapted communities coordinator) also includes a wildland fire manager and fire crew. This crew can suppress fires during the summer, and during the winter it can do prevention work like brush clearance. In Marin County, California, voters in 2020 overwhelmingly passed a measure to create the wildfire prevention authority, which provides funding for defensible space assessments and fuel reduction work.
Many of the tools necessary will soon be available thanks to Senate Bill 762, which will tighten building codes and defensible space requirements across the state of Oregon and provide funding for fuel reduction work. But we cannot rely on politicians in Salem to protect Central Oregon neighborhoods Once the state rules are finalized by the end of this year, Deschutes County must resume its work developing wildfire mitigation requirements for new construction in the rural county. And we must take care to ensure fuel reduction work is done equitably and not exclusively to the benefit of wealthy neighborhoods.
Interested in learning more and wildifre prevention, and how you can reduce the risk of disaster in Deschutes County? Here are resources to learn more: