By Jim Cornelius
Three houses in the Cloverdale Fire District have gone up in flames this summer, along with several outbuildings. Two separate fires, the most recent on August 11, have threatened to devastate entire neighborhoods on the sagebrush flats east of Sisters - and might well have if not for well-coordinated firefighting efforts.
Those fires have driven home a message that Cloverdale Fire Chief Thad Olsen and other emergency officials say is critical: Homeowners must do their part to make their properties defensible, and they must be prepared for a crisis to hit with little warning.
"We aren't going to commit firefighters to houses that are not defensible," Chief Olsen told The Nugget. "Basically, what we're asking is, give us a fighting chance."
Olsen and other officials noted that many homes in the district - and across the county - are not defensible in the face of a fire.
Ornamental junipers in the landscaping close to the house "are cans of gasoline next to your building, waiting to explode when they're lit," Chief Olsen said.
Think of the videos of Christmas trees going up like fireworks the instant fire touches them, and you have a good picture of the deadly effects of such landscaping, officials say. Bark mulch is combustible, and many residents allow dry grass to stand close to their house and creep under their decks. Pine needles that accumulate in gutters or around decks can catch an ember.
Creating defensible space around your home means creating an area of at least 30 feet around the home where combustibles are kept cleared away, trees limbed back and landscaping crafted with plants that don't readily ignite and carry fire.
It doesn't mean your property can't look attractive.
"We don't need a dirt donut," says Ben Duda of Oregon Department of Forestry. "We're not asking people to denude their property."
Steps to create defensible space and tips on fire-resistant landscaping may be found at www.firefree.org. Additionally, products are available to spray on your home that can enhance its resistance to fire. Those have to be applied well before any crisis develops and should be part of a program of defensibility and not a substitute for defensible space.
Another critical element in giving firefighters a fighting chance is making sure they can get into and out of your property safely.
Olsen noted that many homes in the area affected by this month's fire were not accessible to emergency equipment because juniper branches encroached so heavily on the driveway that a fire engine couldn't get through.
Duda offers a simple visual to illustrate the problem:
"When you moved in with a U-Haul, were you scraping branches? If you were, you're too tight."
Firefighters have to be able to drive in to a property and have to be able to turn an engine around so they can escape quickly. If a property doesn't allow for that, a fire chief won't send firefighters in - because they would be risking their lives.
Chief Olsen is blunt: "There's nothing out there that's worth losing one of our people over."
Sgt. Nathan Garibay of the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office, who serves as emergency service coordinator in Central Oregon, says that properties are rated three ways:
1. Standalone - the house is so secure from fire that firefighters don't have to defend it.
2. Defensible - A property has the space and access needed for firefighters to make a save if fire encroaches.
3. Non-defensible: "That means it is a complete write-off because it is not safe for our people."
He notes that county-wide there is "a very small percentage" of standalone properties and "we all have work to do."
Property owners are advised to limb trees back to make sure a fire truck can get in and turn around - and that work should be done before fire season gets underway. Also, it is important to make sure that fire-numbers are readily visible so that emergency personnel can identify where homes are.
Sgt. Garibay says, "There are places in this county where you could drive past a house and not know there was a house there."
In the August 11 fire, firefighters were aided significantly by air support from multiple tankers that made repeated retardant drops that allowed firefighters on the ground to get ahead of the fire.
Without the air power, "we'd have lost more houses, for sure," said Sisters-Camp Sherman Deputy Fire Chief Tim Craig.
But that's a resource that can't be counted upon to save the day.
Larae Guillory, fire management officer with the Sisters Ranger District notes that "People think that they're at our beck and call all the time."
That is not at all the case. Air assets are limited, and assigned to the highest priority fires. On August 11, tankers happened to be available, and could respond to the scene quickly.
"They could have been anywhere that was the highest priory," Guillory said. "It's not always guaranteed that you're going to get those resources."
Without them, the August 11 fire could have been much more devastating than it was. As it was,firefighters "made some great saves," as Sgt. Garibay earlier told The Nugget. Firefighters' work is hard and dangerous at its best, and the better prepared residents are, the more likely those saves become.
It all comes down to personal responsibility and giving those firefighters "a fighting chance.
Being prepared for evacuation
When an overheated electrical cord to a travel trailer started a fire in the area of Rabbitbrush Lane east of Sisters on August 11, the situation got dire very, very quickly. The neighborhood had to be evacuated immediately.
That kind of instant evacuation isn't what we're used to in Sisters County. In last year's Milli Fire, evacuations were planned, with trigger points pre-determined and notices sent out, along with door-to-door notification. Residents had time.
In the August 11 fire, there was very little time at all.
Part of living in wildfire country involves being ready - having a plan and preparations in place to evacuate.
"My personal opinion is that if you live in Deschutes County, you should be at Level One (Be Ready) on June 1," says Ben Duda of Oregon Department of Forestry.
Emergency officials strongly advise locals to sign up for Deschutes Emergency Alerts. The Deschutes Alert System (DAS) can be used to notify the public with important information during an emergency. Alerts can be sent to cell phones - but only if your number is registered. Sign up at https://www.deschutes.org/911/page/sign-deschutes-emergency-alerts.
Sgt. Nathan Garibay of the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office, who serves as emergency service coordinator in Central Oregon, said that DAS was a vital tool in the August 11 fire.
"There was no way we could have done door-to-door notifications," he said.
Many homeowners during the August 11 fire had to evacuate horses and other livestock. Garibay notes that it is important to have a plan for such a contingency, including pre-arranged places to take your large animals. There are "official" resources available for large animal evacuations, but "sometimes those resources are three hours away - and you need them in 45 minutes," Garibay said.
Make arrangements with friends who have trailers and space for animals.
Extra advance planning may also be necessary if you are dealing with people who have mobility issues or special medical needs.
Planning for evacuation doesn't have to be on the scale of a military operation - it just requires some thought and effort when things are calm.
"It doesn't take all day to at least think it through and come up with a plan," Sgt. Garibay said.
The website www.readyforwildfire.org offers extensive tips for evacuation:
Emergency Supply Kit Checklist
• Three-day supply of non-perishable food and three gallons of water per person
• Map marked with at least two evacuation routes
• Prescriptions or special medications
• Change of clothing
• Extra eyeglasses or contact lenses
• An extra set of car keys, credit cards, cash or traveler's checks
• First aid kit
• Battery-powered radio and extra batteries
• Sanitation supplies
• Copies of important documents (birth certificates, passports, etc.)
• Don't forget pet food and water! (The website also offers extensive tips on preparing for pet evacuation.)
Items to take if time allows:
• Easily carried valuables
• Family photos and other irreplaceable items
• Personal computer information on hard drives and disks
• Chargers for cell phones, laptops, etc.
Always keep a sturdy pair of shoes and a flashlight near your bed and handy in case of a sudden evacuation at night.
Sometimes residents feel compelled to stay to try to defend their home. Firefighters and other emergency personnel strongly advise against this impulse. Not only does it put the homeowner in danger, it endangers firefighters and law enforcement personnel at grave risk, because they are duty-bound to try to help you if you're in danger.
"We don't want to have homeowners staying and trying to defend their homes," said Sisters-Camp Sherman Deputy Fire Chief Tim Craig. "Because that's when we lose lives."