BEND, Ore. — On an autumn weekday here in Deschutes County, Oregon, a chain-saw roar ripped through a pine-scented neighborhood. Tree specialists were removing flammable lodgepole pines in Sunriver, a 4,000-home resort community. With summer crowds gone, the Sunriver Owners Association was reducing wildfire risk.
This is a year when huge wildfires, characterized by exceptionally strong winds, continue to ravage Ventura County and other parts of Southern California, after an October in which blazes in Santa Rosa destroyed thousands of homes. But experts believe that a cohesive strategy involving public education, community outreach, landscape restoration and robust emergency response could at least begin to mitigate the potential for such devastation. And that is what is at work here, hundreds of miles to the north of the California fires.
Deschutes County, population 175,000, has become a national leader in pursuing such a comprehensive approach. It too experiences regular wildfires. Nevertheless, no house has burned here since 2003, even as fires caused enormous property damage elsewhere in the West — from exurban metropolitan areas to similarly sized counties like Chelan and Oakanogan in Washington, where fires in 2015 burned over 100 structures.
Bob Roper, a retired fire chief of Ventura County, Calif., endorses the approach in general, saying, “Everything that they’re doing can be replicated somewhere else,” even though the strategy may still be unable to completely protect against the damage that increasingly ferocious winds pose in fire season.
What are the measures being taken here? The comprehensive approach, at its core, is an effort to eliminate flammable materials near vulnerable homes and preserve enough room between housing and fire-prone areas to reduce the ability of flying sparks to ignite structures.
At Sunriver that fall day, the workers were thinning trees to promote the growth of fire-resistant ponderosa pines. They also pruned low-hanging branches and raked up pine needles, two types of “ladder fuel” that send wildfires upward.
Sunriver’s aggressive landscape maintenance has earned it the Firewiseseal, a designation from the National Fire Protection Association for neighborhoods that observe guidelines to protect against wildfires.
Thinning and pruning weren’t always de rigueur in Sunriver, which was developed in the 1960s as a recreational playground for Portlanders on the sunny side of the Cascades. At the time, according to Hugh Palcic, manager of the community’s homeowners association, the prevailing attitude was “Every tree is sacred.”
Back then, policy called for planting two trees for every one removed. That approach satisfied Sierra Club instincts in this arboreal haven surrounded by national forest land, but it contradicts the current science on wildfire management.
In the 1990s, destructive fires in Deschutes County served as alarms for Sunriver, and it voluntarily revised its approach. Now residents maintain their properties or risk violating homeowners association rules.
All 3,055 square miles of Deschutes County, one of the fastest-growing areas in the United States, are a declared a wildfire hazard area. A county-sponsored outreach campaign called Project Wildfire works with neighborhoods and homeowners to teach best practices for managing wildfire risk and offers a potential model to help people learn to live with fire.
Alison Green, the one-woman team behind Project Wildfire, is a Deschutes County native. She’s married to a firefighter and is the daughter of a county forester, and her voice mail message ends, “Have a safe and fire-free day.” She described Project Wildfire’s outlook as “You do live in an area where this is a hazard, but you can change your fate.” By going through the project’s checklist, based on voluntary state standards, she said, “you can increase the probability of your home surviving a wildfire to 85 to 90 percent without even needing a firefighter.”
The High Desert Museum — where signs read “Extreme Fire Danger. Please Absolutely No Smoking” — explains how the ponderosa pine forests here work as a fire-based ecology. Winter precipitation saturates the soil, which sprouts bitterbrush and sagebrush in the spring, offering a food source and habitat for wildlife. Hot, dry summers then turn that forest floor into fuel, and on average every seven years a wildfire sweeps and restarts the cycle. But mature specimens of ponderosa pine generally fare well during such fires.
Fire-suppression tactics in the western United States have disrupted this natural cycle. For over a century, the prevailing strategy has been to extinguish all fires as soon as possible. Initially that served to protect valuable timber stands; today’s justification is protecting private homes. Since the 1960s, the percentage of Americans who reside in these areas, known to experts as the “wildland-urban interface,” grew from 25 million to 140 million people, according to Census Bureau statistics.
Dean Drabin is one of them. He moved to Deschutes County from Los Angeles in 2002, carrying a particular type of seasonal affective disorder with him. “There was that vague, unsettling anxiety that happens when spring ends and the summer fire season starts,” he told me. (This was six weeks before this year’s fires engulfed Southern California.)
In Oregon, Drabin says, he has gained “more peace of mind” since he began implementing Project Wildfire’s recommendations, especially “defensible space.” Wildfire experts believe that eliminating fuels within a 30-to-50-foot radius of a house greatly reduces risk. That means practicing Sunriver’s large-scale maintenance on an individual level: pruning and thinning trees, clearing gutters of pine needles and screening off crawl spaces where debris collects. Embers, which travel a few miles ahead of wildfires and are the main culprit behind burned houses, can spark those fuels.
While scientifically proven, these strategies require unlearning certain behavior. When Drabin arrived, he sought out low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plants. A garden store recommended ornamental juniper. He’s now sheepish about the rookie mistake. Standing with us, the county forester, Ed Keith, said planting juniper was “like having a five-gallon can of gas up against your house.”
Sunriver, too, made mistakes, like originally requiring wood-shake roofs. Experts now recommend class A fire-rated material, which flammable wood shake is not — though it can be treated with fire resistant chemicals. That revelation led the Sunriver Owners Association to ban shake roofs. Such a 180-degree move might leave homeowners scratching their heads, but Palcic says education is essential. “You can tell the rules, or you can sell the rules,” he said.
For example, the Owners Association offers a recommended plant list for xeriscape, or water-conserving gardens, and offers a demonstration garden at the Sunriver Nature Center. It also inspects every home annually for ladder fuels. Recalcitrant owners are scolded for noncompliance and repeat offenders can face fines up to $2,500 per month. With wildfire, the weak link can compromise the entire chain.
Drabin, president of his neighborhood’s homeowners association, is a “spark plug,” Project Wildfire’s term for its community liaisons. They are the information conduits for fire-safe practices and specific initiatives like the “sweat equity program,” under which the county will pick up woody debris the same way it picks up garbage, provided that homeowners bring it to the curb. Deschutes County also hosts semiannual “FireFree Weekends” when residents can drop off woody debris free of charge. Drabin says that over time, his neighbors have made this yardwork routine.
Drabin is skeptical of his former home city’s willingness to take responsibility for wildfire risk. “A typical homeowner in L.A. seeing smoke on the horizon,” he says, “will just say, ‘I hope it doesn’t come near my house, and if it does, I hope somebody takes care of it.’” But he believes that with enough commitment and resources, the Deschutes County model could work in any community, large or small.
There are some structural challenges in other areas of the fire-prone West, however. Santa Rosa’s dense clusters of houses, while important for providing more supply in the nation’s most expensive housing market, also made it easier for fire to spread from house to house.
Some critics consider voluntary efforts insufficient. Project Widlfire “is not a solution,” says Paul Dewery, the executive director of Central Oregon Landwatch, a conservation group. “It gives people a false sense of security — all we have to do is implement the Firewise standards and we’ll be safe.” Dewey calls himself a realist when he says: “Everything is going to burn. It’s just a matter of when and with what intensity.”
Dewey argues for stricter regulation: “The cities and the county should be saying any time you remodel your house, you have to use fire-resistant materials.” Oregon’s Forestland-Urban Interface Fire Protection Actrequires defensible space in theory, but homeowners are liable only if a wildfire strikes.
Drabin, on the other hand, finds the pro-regulation attitude unrealistic. “A large number of people have moved specifically to this area because they didn’t want to have to deal with rules and regulations,” he said.
Other jurisdictions have gone that route. Ventura County, where 1,020 structures have burned, has a mandatory fire prevention ordinance requiring 100 feet of defensible space. The county will perform the maintenance for noncompliant homeowners and charge their property tax bill. Roper, who evacuated his home, told me last week, “The preventive measures did work, but there’s not a good way to quantify how well they worked.” He cited extreme winds as exceptional circumstances. “The fire was spotting a mile ahead of itself,” he said. “Nobody can put in that much defensible space.”
“Rules are going to make things safer, but you have to institute them gradually along with education,” argued Tom Fay, a Deschutes County fire chief and vice chairman of Project Wildfire. He cited the booming county’s influx of outsiders as the largest challenge. “We’re doing an extremely good job; it’s just that we can’t ever quit,” he said. With newcomers unaware of the region’s fire-based ecology, he described the scenario as “kindergarten class starting every year.”
But neighborhood stalwarts like Drabin will hopefully provide continuity. “Now if I see smoke on the horizon, I know we have taken steps to make our community less likely to succumb to a fire,” he said. “It doesn’t eliminate the anxiety entirely, because fire is always a threat, but at the same time it puts it into a much more manageable place.”