A bolt of lightning struck a tree just outside Bruce Wilcox’s home in Morrow County, Oregon last year, sending shards of wood flying 40 yards away. “It didn’t start a fire,” he said. “It just hit that tree and went to ground. But we were lucky.” Lightning-ignited fires are common in north-central Oregon, and Wilcox lives about 16 miles south of Heppner — home to the nearest fire department. Wilcox is helping his community, known locally as Blake Ranch, become the county’s first to join Firewise USA. He told Oregon Public Broadcasting that the Firewise program could be the key to protecting nearby homes from the next big wildfire.
Firewise is sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) manages the program at the state level. Through training and local fire prevention projects, Firewise encourages property owners to take proactive measures to prevent fires from destroying their homes and businesses. Many of Oregon’s small and isolated communities have achieved Firewise designation.
Jessica Prakke with ODF said these sparsely populated communities are among the target areas for the state. “We’re definitely trying to reach those smaller communities that are in the wildland/urban interface, because they can be the most susceptible to wildfire.”
In Blake Ranch, Wilcox contacted ODF after he read about a community in northeast Oregon’s Wallowa County that was participating. Since then, ODF has sent foresters to assess Blake Ranch properties for fire readiness, and some residents have taken a wildfire prevention class. Prakke said ODF doesn’t usually initiate the process of turning communities into Firewise sites, because the agency needs community buy-in to make the program work. Wilcox noted that some local residents are a little skeptical — they suspect the program might require them to remove trees they want to keep. But Wilcox thinks they’ll come around.
The Firewise program has an interactive map on the NFPA website with details about designated sites and their locations across the country, and it’s interesting to compare locations with known fire-danger areas. There’s a cluster of sites, for example, north of Paradise in northern California. One of the sites, Falcons Pointe Drive, is near Upper Bidwell Park in Chico. That community’s participation in the Firewise program began in September of 2022.
There are very few sites in Nevada and zero in North Dakota; about half of Colorado’s map is covered with little Firewise icons. While Oregon’s west side is not really known for severe wildfires, that side of the state surely proved the exception over the last few years, and it’s crowded with Firewise sites, while the east side of Oregon, no stranger to major fires, has only a few. Blake Ranch was just added to the list in December, and the numbers grow as people learn about neighborhoods and towns devastated by wildfires.
“The number of conversations I have had since Paradise has skyrocketed,” said Chris Chambers, Forest Division Chief in Ashland, Oregon. Residents and local officials in and around Ashland tend to be a little more fire-savvy than in many areas; they have a history with interface fires. Jefferson Public Radio reported, about a year after wildfire leveled the town of Paradise, that Chambers spoke to a throng of people at a sold-out screening of the documentary Fire In Paradise at a theater in downtown Ashland, just north of the California state line. Although the Camp Fire was more than 200 miles south, Chambers says it alarmed Ashland residents; it’s a small, woodsy town that, like Paradise, is tucked into forest.
“People have really become concerned,” Chambers said. “I just hope that translates into lasting awareness in the sense that people take responsibility for the condition of their property.”