October 4, 2022

Whole Community News

From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

Eugene neighbors help prepare for wildfire

10 min read

Fire Chief Chris Heppel: For me as the Fire Chief of Eugene Springfield Fire, the reality for me was, it can happen here.

This is the wake-up call. This was the weather event that if it would have started, if our ignition source would have been in the Lowell/Dexter area on that night with those same precipitating factors, we could have very easily been fighting this fire off of Spencer’s Butte, off Willamette Street, Fox Hollow. We could have very easily been into that area.

David Monk: [00:00:34] The Holiday Farm Fire could have blown into the Eugene / Springfield Metro area. After seeing what happened in Talent and Phoenix (Oregon), we had a firsthand view of a wildfire in an urban setting and realized that we needed to start organizing in our community to prepare residents for the possibility of a wildfire burning in the Metro area.

Tom Peck: [00:00:57] This is Oregon on September of 2020 showing fires that burned on the West side of the cascade mountains had the easterly winds continued major metropolitan communities like Portland, Salem, Eugene, and Roseburg could have burned.

Mike Beasley: [00:01:18] We’ll talk more about the East winds, but you can start to see that pattern here in the fire shapes in Oregon. A lot of them were in canyons that were aligned East to West. So they really picked up those East winds. The Diablo when the Santa Ana winds they’re known by many names, coming from a lot of different mountain ranges, but it’s all the same process of rapidly accelerating downslope winds. And a lot of times that comes from a dry, continental air mass that’s had a lot of sun baking it for a long time. In this case, these foehn winds picked up and took ongoing fires.

Tom Peck: [00:01:58] Strong easterly winds increase the amount of oxygen supplied to the fire. They push the flames towards the unburned fuel and blow hot embers, or firebrands up into the air far ahead of the main fire.

Fire Chief Chris Heppel: [00:02:14] Reflect back, get a map and say, wow, a fire traveled 20 miles in 15 hours. And that is just unbelievable. Not only that it was within the McKenzie river Valley, which is, it’s a lot of green trees.

They shouldn’t burn. The McKenzie river is right there, which has a lot of humidity. It shouldn’t burn. It shouldn’t do these kinds of things, that tells us we were in a condition that it was unprecedented. Ivy burning within three inches of the McKenzie River, which is radiating humidity. Folks, that shouldn’t have happened. It should not have happened, but unfortunately that’s what we experienced that night. So that combination of those winds ripping down the valley at 30 to 40 plus miles an hour, throwing the firebrands a half mile ahead of the leading edge of the fire for 15 plus hours, burned 20 miles and 73,000 acres.

Tim Ingalsbee: [00:03:23] Wildfires are growing of huge size with phenomenal rates of spread driven by these giant blizzards of embers that each one landed in dry fuels either in the forest floor or in a home rooftop can ignite a new fire. And so what’s happening in these mega fires is fires are hopscotching across the landscape leapfrogging across to any kind of fire lines or fuel rates. The reality is that even a single wildfire can threaten hundreds of homes simultaneously. So once a house in a urban cluster or community ignites it can set up a chain reaction of house to house ignitions. These become the urban conflagrations that result in tragedies disasters, catastrophes.

Amanda Rau: [00:04:17] You will find me talking about using fire to manage fire. The whole idea here is to create community resilience. And being mindful about what fire might do if it comes into your community, no matter whether you live in town or out in the South Hills. All these places are the same when it comes down to it, as we’ve seen from the Almeda fire.

Tom Peck: [00:04:36] The Almeda fire started in Ashland as a small grass fire, which quickly spread and destroyed 2,800 homes and businesses in Talent and Phoenix.

Susanna Perillat: [00:04:48] What set in was the memory of people dying in their cars in Paradise (CA) . That overtook us. And there was a kind of panic about that, that I do not want to die in my car, in a fire.

Kathy Kali: [00:05:03] I was the manager of the park that was the very first neighborhood to burn. So we saw the smoke coming. We got no alerts whatsoever, and I literally was out banging on doors, leading the evacuation I was the evacuation because I was the only person who knew where everybody lived and where the seniors lived and where the people with disabilities lived and where the veterans lived. And so I was out banging on doors. And then about 20 minutes into the evacuation, homes in the park were burning already.

James Williams: [00:05:35] When we found out, we had six minutes to get out of our house, the flames were already in the park. We didn’t hear anything on the news, there was no warning system. There is no nothing. We lost everything we owned. We’d walked out with the clothes on our backs. I had flip flops shorts and a t-shirt.

Jennie DeBunce: [00:05:55] My housemates and I evacuated after watching the fire grow closer for hours and unable to get reliable information on the situation, getting into our cars. I could hear propane tanks exploding.

Tani Pineda: [00:06:06] I never got a notification I logged on to Facebook and that’s how I found out this fire. When we drive to Phoenix my five-year-old looks at where we used to live. And she asks, ‘Where’s my home?’ that just breaks me to pieces, knowing that my daughter has that memory engraved in her, that the place she called home and she grew up and she learned how to take her first steps is no longer there.

Pam Halbert: [00:06:33] I moved here July 1st to be with my aging mother. She’s 82. I’m 63. And we were combining our households when the fires struck and we lost everything. I’m sorry, this is still very emotional. I’ve been working hard. I’ve been doing all of the paperwork and the running and the running and the running for assistance anywhere we can find it for my mom. And. I hit my wall a week ago. So I’m very emotional. I have to apologize. Who would ever think, that we’d lose everything, and to face starting over at our ages is very daunting and overwhelming.

Katie Gibble: [00:07:23] How do we help our residents, businesses, infrastructure, and everything else be prepared for wildfire and help our community recover when support is needed. It requires working to prepare our surrounding landscapes, our forests and our rangelands, for wildfire. It involves thinking about our homes and landscaping, which is going to require providing a lot of education outreach to the community to make that individual home work possible. And how was our landscape going to respond to fire, what’s going to happen to our hillslopes in our watershed. Becoming a fire adapted community also requires thinking about evacuation.

Stephen Caruana: [00:08:00] I was heavily involved over the years in my professional life in doing the post-wildfire restoration work on large Southern California fires. Mapping, GIS work, being able to look and analyze the landscape, the various impacts that can occur and how do we then utilize that knowledge to help the people in Eugene and the neighborhood associations develop their own methods of, one, controlling areas, cleaning up areas, but also in the event of another fire, what would be the evacuation routes that people would have to take to get out of the way? This is something that’s been a sometimes difficult issue in past wildfires across the West. And how do you evacuate out of an area when there’s flames all around?

Mike Beasley: [00:08:46] Now, when you get a fire in urban area, you can actually get an urban configuration with all that man-made material starts to burn, and those are tremendous high speeds. This was clocked at 140+ some odd miles an hour, same as F-class tornadoes. We can get these kinds of a large fire tornadoes developing over developed areas.

Oh, that’s why the home ignition zone, from all that groundbreaking work that’s been done (by the) Missoula Fire Lab, especially five feet from your home. Having nothing flammable and nothing organic in that first five feet is so critical.

Amy Linder: [00:09:29] The number one susceptible part of a structure to a wildfire is the roof. So it’s the one thing, if you were to make one change to an existing structure, we would recommend making sure you have a noncombustible roof. We occasionally still see wood shakes and those are, those can be quite flammable, especially over time as they age and wear. So thinking about asphalt shingles or tile or metal and then making sure that your maintenance, making sure you keep the pine needles and the debris off the roof, so that an Ember doesn’t get in there and begin to smolder and ignite.

Katie Gibble: [00:10:08] In 2018, we adopted a wildfire safety ordinance which allows us to prevent new construction and landscaping that’s going to present a fire risk. So this includes requirements for defensible space to be created around new construction, as well as additions to present properties. The ordinance also prohibits new plantings of a list of flammable plants. It requires that newly constructed fences be constructed of non-flammable material within the first five feet of attaching to a home. And we’re actually in the final stages of adopting an ordinance requiring ignition resistant construction.

Deputy Chief Amy Linder: [00:10:44] We have a program called Firewise that is an NFPA project. Oregon department of forestry is a huge supporter of that.

Katie Gibble: [00:10:51] Firewise program has been amazingly successful. It’s it’s amazing. Firewise is a formal program that provides organization and direction for a neighborhood to understand and reduce wildfire risk. a neighborhood with several dozen homes or several hundred homes can organize to become a Firewise community. Ashland adopted this program early on, after wildfires in both 2009 and 2010 destroyed several homes and threatened hundreds more. 10 years later, Ashland has 36 active Firewise communities. We have the highest density of Firewise communities in the country for a given town.

Deputy Chief Amy Linder: [00:11:32] One of the questions we get asked a lot is, what is the city doing to protect our community, particularly up in the Hills? I’m going to give a huge shout out to our public works department in Eugene, particularly our parks and open space division. They have a robust hazardous fuel treatment program for city-owned property. And we think about our Ridgeline Trail and the ‘Emerald Necklace of Eugene’ that runs along the ridgeline up there in the South Hills. The city in a lot of cooperation with Bureau of Land Management have an aggressive plan where they are actively treating and creating fuel breaks along the Ridge line.

Katie Gibble: [00:12:09] For all residents in our community, we offer one- hour one-on-one home wildfire risk assessments, and the assessment is no cost to the resident. It provides advice to an individual homeowner on not only what risk reduction actions they should be taking, but what they should prioritize, which they should be getting done first. And so that’s a really useful tool because we’re catering our advice to the individual, as opposed to, as one of our wildfire safety commissioners says, we’re telling you to eat your vegetables and it’s a boiler plate we’re telling you to do this. This catered experience is really important to help get risk reduction work done. We need to get more people out there that are able to do wildfire risk assessments. And so right now we’re in the process of developing a volunteer home assessor program, which will train volunteers in our community to conduct these critical assessments. We’re hoping to launch a training course this spring, just another way of further extending our ability to adapt to fire.

Amanda Rau: [00:13:08] this is what it looked like in the 1850s, when fire was more a presence on the landscape as a management tool—a lot of savannah conditions where trees were sparse and open. These are all examples of what fire does. This is not clear-cut or even age management practices, it’s not, it’s the result of fire and the people that lived with fire on the landscape. The presence of fire on the landscape reduced the hazard of fire for the people who were living here, as well as providing numerous cultural benefits: foods, hunting, travel routes, countless benefits that fire provided.

Tim Ingalsbee: [00:13:44] Homes can be more vulnerable to ember ignitions than big old trees. And so here we have a strategic dilemma. Should we be sending firefighters to suppress back country wildfires, try to, we’ll fight them over there so they don’t come here. Or should we be focusing more of our resources on protecting homes and communities? And as a fire ecologist, it’s pretty clear what we should be doing because many wild land ecosystems have certain benefits from fire. Forest themselves are rejuvenated by fire. They regenerate certain species of plants. The effects of fire in forest are mixed as opposed to what happens in communities. They’re almost purely destructive.

David Monk: [00:14:35] We know that many of us are ill prepared for contending with a wildfire, our homes are not hardened. Our landscaping is too close and too dense. So we wanted to bring this information to the larger community so that they can start preparing their respective homes.

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