The recent Two Bulls blaze demonstrates need for local wildfire preparednesss

by: RON HALVORSON - This homeowner has taken precautions to make their home 'fire safe,' including pruning juniper trees close to the home.

In the early afternoon of June 7, smoke was reported from an area 10 miles northwest of Bend. By the following day, strong northwest winds drove the Two Bulls fire to consume more than 6,000 acres, 250 homes had been evacuated, and another 2,000 were threatened.

In many parts of the West, wildfire and evacuations have become an annual event, as people increasingly tempt Mother Nature by building homes in areas where wildfire is a natural and expected occurrence.

Given the right conditions, according to local officials, Two Bulls is a scenario that could be repeated in Crook County, but less likely due to the difference in fuels. Where Two Bulls burned mostly pine and shrubs, local subdivisions are primarily in juniper forest.”Juniper Canyon is a high-risk area,” said Michael Ryan, emergency manager with the Crook County Sheriff’s Office. “Fortunately, we don’t see a lot of large, fast-moving fires in juniper. You can get them, but it’s really rare. I’m not saying we can’t have a problem there, because we can.”

Lisa Clark, public affairs officer with the Prineville District, Bureau of Land Management, agreed.

“It’s a little bit different fuel there (than with Two Bulls). That’s where I think we’d see a very fast-moving range fire. But just stepping out a little bit, into some of that Johnson Creek, Marks Creek, that’s where you’d see more of those conditions (like Two Bulls).”

Should a large fire occur that threatens homes, Crook County’s response would be nearly identical to what the public saw with Two Bulls, according to Ryan.

Upon report of a fire, simultaneous dispatches would go to both Crook County Fire and Rescue and the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center, which supports the local federal and state agencies responsible for wildland fire suppression.

If the fire was likely to outstrip local resources, CCFR’s fire chief would request mutual aid from Redmond, and could also request one or more task forces (a task force is five pieces of structural fire apparatus and crews) from Deschutes or Jefferson counties. Should the fire progress, the CCFR fire chief, along with representatives from the wildland agencies, could decide to request a declaration of conflagration from the governor.

“What that gives Matt (CCFR Fire Chief Matt Smith) is the ability to have task forces sent from outside the area,” explained Ryan. “It also puts into place a funding mechanism for those agencies outside our area that are responding.”Ryan stressed that this is for structure protection only. Any wildfire suppression efforts would be the responsibility of the affected agencies.

A need for evacuations would bring the Prineville Police Dept. into the equation, said Captain Michael Boyd.

“We’d use the emergency alert system, though our 911 dispatch center. Social media, websites, those kinds of things we’d use as well. Then the county (CCSO) would probably go door-to-door, and telling them.”The reverse 911 system (911 dispatch calling residents) would also be available, although it has limitations, one of which is the challenge of notifying the owners of cell phones.

“Most of that stuff is linked to landlines,” Boyd said, “and landlines are becoming rarer and rarer these days.”

“It’s not a fast process,” commented Ryan. “If we were to try and notify all of Juniper Canyon, let’s say, it literally takes hours to get that through the (reverse 911) system. It’s really boots on the ground. Everybody that we could muster up would be out there in cars, going door-to-door quickly, getting people to evacuate.”

It’s at this point that Crook County has some limitations compared to Deschutes County, he added. Deschutes has “literally hundreds” of sheriff’s deputies for the task, while Crook County, including corrections officers, has “about 35,” although about 60 local search and rescue volunteers would also be mobilized to help with the effort.

Depending on the fire location, an evacuation could be challenging, Ryan said. For example, if residents in the Juniper Canyon area were blocked from either Juniper Canyon or Davis Loop roads, they could be trapped. And while identifying a secondary evacuation route is planned, it hasn’t happened yet.

“It’s a challenge, because we’re essentially, on probably three-quarters of that plateau area, trying to deal with actual cliffs, where we can’t get vehicles down through.”

Homeowners in areas susceptible to wildfire should do what they can now to minimize their risk, encouraged Clark. This includes creating defensible space around their homes, and reducing fire risk on the rest of their property. It should be a concern for anyone living in the open spaces, not just those in the woods.

“When a fire moving through cheatgrass can go eight miles-an-hour, that’s significant,” she said. “People in the grassland and the shrub-steppe ecosystem need to do just as much defensible space as somebody that’s more in a forested area.”

Ryan stressed the importance of removing “ladder fuels,” the flammable vegetation that can allow a ground fire to climb into trees.

“Within 50 feet of your house, clear as much of the vegetation away as you can,” he said. “Get rid of those ladder fuels. Limb up your trees to a reasonable level - five or six feet. Get those lower branches off those juniper trees. That doesn’t mean you have to scrape it away to bare earth, but if you at least cut the grasses, that’s helpful.”

“This is the time of year to get it done,” said Clark. “You won’t have time when there is a fire in the neighborhood. Just a little bit of work around your home, and cleaning out your gutters, cleaning off your roof, that can make all the difference, and it can make it a safer spot for a firefighter to come protect.”

10 tips to make your home fire safe (from

• Define your defensible space

• Reduce flammable brush around your home and under nearby trees

• Prune or remove trees

• Keep grass and weeds cut low

• Clear wood piles and building materials away from your home

• Keep your yard and roof clean

• Keep address signs visible

• Choose fire-resistant building materials and lawn furniture

• Recycle yard debris - avoid burning

• Be prepared to respond to wildfire

For other resources, contact Crook County Fire and Rescue, or local offices of the U.S. Forest Service, BLM, or Oregon Dept. of Forestry.

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