Oregon: Prevention Happens

The 1996 Skeleton Fire roared toward the Sundance subdivision near Bend, Oregon with 160-foot flames and an ember shower that ignited homes so fast that firefighters had to cross some off the list. Homes with stacked firewood on the deck and cedar shake roofs were written off, and the fire destroyed 19 homes and burned 17,000 acres. A report in the Eugene Register-Guard details the other results of that fire, one of which is the lesson that it costs a lot less to teach a community to protect itself than it does to fight a subdivision fire.

The fire launched a statewide focus on wildfire prevention in rural communities, according to Tom Andrade with the Oregon Department of Forestry. In 1997, the legislature approved the Oregon Forestland-Urban Interface Fire Protection Act (SB360), which encourages interface property owners to create defensible space around their homes — and penalizes those who don’t.

Interface fires in Oregon are nothing new, but SB360 is a new concept for preventing them — and it’s not without some controversy in a state where many residents don’t want government agencies telling them what they can’t do with their property. The fire-safe recommendations aren’t mandatory. But there is a big incentive:  Residents who don’t comply could be liable for up to $100,000 if a catastrophic fire starts on their property. And the program’s made a lot of Oregon residents into fire safety converts.

“People have come in, they’re up in arms, they’re afraid that government is here to tell them what to do,” said Kevin Crowell with ODF. “Once they understand the program, they’re going, ‘That’s what I do anyway to my landscape and residence.’”

Andrade credits the program and other fire-prevention efforts for a drop in destructive wildfires in Deschutes County. Between 1990 and 2000, wildfire burned 53 homes in the county. From 2000 to September of this year, only two homes have been destroyed.

The ODF recommendations include establishing defensible space around the home, removing needles and leaves from roofs and gutters, maintaining access for fire engines, keeping firewood away from the home during fire season, and clearing flammables from under decks.

More information is available online from the Pacific Northwest Fire Prevention site, and details about Oregon’s Forestland-Urban Interface Fire Protection Act (SB 360) are also online. Central Oregon’s FireFree program is explained on the projectwildfire.org website and the firefree.org site.