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Stamping Out Wildfire In Central Oregon

September 2015

 

From May 1–16, 2015, Project Wildfire and its partners coordinated a FireFree event as part of the second annual National Fire Protection Association Wildfire Community Preparedness Day and in collaboration with the spring 2015 America’s PrepareAthon!SM This event was one of the more than 23 million registered preparedness actions that took place this year.

Partnerships Formed in the Wake of Devastating Fires Empower Homeowners to Do Their Part in Prevention. 

On August 24, 1996, the infamous Skeleton Fire ignited near Bend, in Central Oregon, which is part of Deschutes County. At the time, firefighters battling other larger fires in the state deemed the Skeleton Fire a low priority. The next morning, however, high surface winds, temperatures in the upper 90s, and low relative humidity created ideal weather conditions for extreme fire behavior. The Skeleton Fire changed directions and quickly threatened neighborhoods in eastern Bend.

Though some residents had created defensible space around their homes by removing highly flammable vegetation, many had waist-high sage brush growing right against the walls of their homes. In the end, the Skeleton Fire burned nearly 18,000 acres on the eastern flank of Bend, damaged 11 homes, and destroyed 19 others. The Skeleton fire provided the impetus for changing attitudes towards wildfire in Deschutes County.

After the Skeleton Fire and other fires destroyed 41 homes in the Bend area, a local insurance company reached out to Bend Fire & Rescue to offer assistance to the community, suggesting a new fire truck or fire pumps. Bend Fire Marshal Gary Marshall received the call. “I told them,” he recalls, “what we really need to do is change the behaviors and attitudes of our residents so they understand what they can do [to the land] around their homes to not only protect firefighters... but also to help save their property.”

With funding from a local insurance company, Bend Fire & Rescue was able to establish the FireFree wildfire awareness program. The first step for Marshall was to begin to market the campaign. “I told them I would like to market wildfire prevention to the public just like Coca-Cola would sell its product,” says Marshall. “I wanted to sell fire prevention.”

Boy Scouts help residents unload debris at Sunriver Compost on May 2, 2015.Boy Scouts help residents unload debris at Sunriver Compost on May 2, 2015.

Deschutes County Stokes Project Wildfire 

The partnership between Deschutes County and the FireFree program continues today through coordinated prevention activities. Initially, a grant from an insurance company and the Federal Emergency Management Agency funded Project Impact that later became Project Wildfire. In 2004, determined to keep Project Wildfire current, Deschutes County built the necessary infrastructure for the program. Project Wildfire facilitates, educates, disseminates, and maximizes community efforts toward effective wildfire preparedness and mitigation, including coordinating the FireFree partners for the spring event.

In spring 2015, the FireFree campaign held events in both Deschutes and Jefferson counties. FireFree allows residents to dispose of their yard debris created by maintenance or creation of defensible space free of charge at collection sites in two counties.

Local media partners promoted the dates and collection sites for the event. FireFree volunteers, including local firefighters from structural and wildland agencies, Boy Scouts of America, representatives from Heart of Oregon Corps, and private homeowners, assisted at the collection facilities by routing traffic and unloading debris from vehicles.

 

Residents unload debris at Simpson Transfer Station on May 2, 2015.Residents unload debris at Simpson Transfer Station on May 2, 2015.

With almost 38,000 cubic yards of debris recycled, the 2015 event shattered all previous FireFree records; homeowner participation increased by 27 percent over the previous year.

Individual Action on the Frontlines of Prevention 

The FireFree program promotes the individual responsibility of homeowners in preventing home loss in the event of large wildfires. “Individual homeowners are our greatest resource when it comes to protecting structures in the event of a wildfire,” said FireFree Program Coordinator Alison Green.

Don’t Wait. Get Involved! 

America’s PrepareAthon! provides resources on wildfiresearthquakesfloodshurricanestornadoes, and winter storms. Download these and other free resources at www.ready.gov/prepare.

If your community is prone to wildfires, don’t wait to take action. Visit www.firefree.org for more information on preparing your home for the fire season. If you would like to plan a FireFree event in your community, e-mail projectwildfire.pw@gmail.com, or download the toolkit from www.projectwildfire.org.