By Kate Lighthall, Coordinator, Western Region, National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy
As part of our effort to showcase what the Cohesive Strategy looks like on the ground and solid examples of success, please enjoy my version of this tale and excerpts from the blog post by Alison Green, Coordinator of Oregon: Living with Fire. Thanks for sharing Alison! 😀
Just as Central Oregon’s summer began to heat up and local officials bumped the fire danger rating to “Extreme,” the human-caused Rosland Road fire broke out on Saturday, July 18, 2020 in La Pine, OR (about 30 minutes south of Bend, OR).
The area nearby is full of small acreage homes (2-10 acres) and moderately-sized neighborhoods with structures closer together. It’s also known as one of the gateways to dozens of scenic campgrounds, lakes, and other summertime recreation spots in the Deschutes National Forest. It’s estimated that there are between 10,000 and 20,000 people recreating just west of this zone in the Cascade Lakes Recreation Area on any given weekend during the summer. Interstate Highway 97 runs through the middle of La Pine.
I received a text from CentralOregonFire.org letting me know that a quick moving fire was threatening homes off Rosland Road. I immediately called Alison Green, because she’s based here in Central Oregon and serves as the Coordinator for Oregon: Living with Fire. I thought she’d have some up-to-date information and as it turns out, she lives less than a third of a mile from this fire – gasp! So of course, I then offered her a place to stay if she evacuated. 😉 Although the Green Family already had evacuation plans, we continued to stay in touch as firefighters worked to stop the advancing blaze.
Over the next couple days the fire burned 393 acres directly adjacent to a neighborhood called Newberry Estates.
What made initial attack so successful? First, let’s recall that the Cohesive Strategy emphasizes that “all hands” and “all lands” have a role in reducing the risk of wildfire impacts. Individuals, communities, elected officials, land-use planners, land managers, landowners, scientists, fire managers and firefighters…the reality is that we all have a role in reducing the risk of unwanted fire.
In the case of the Rosland Road fire, it was the efforts that took place before the fire that contributed to the successful fire stop and the protection of nearby Newberry Estates.
Living with Fire: The Newberry Estates Story
Several years ago the neighborhood became a recognized Firewise USA community. Specific home hardening, defensible space activities, and hazardous vegetation removal in and around the neighborhood helped prepare properties and safe ingress/egress routes for fire. Residents also regularly participated in the La Pine Community Wildfire Protection Plan updates which prioritize the area for federal treatments, giving them a full understanding of the extreme risk of wildfire in their area and how important their roles are in survival.
For example, residents knew that darkness, dust, and smoke could spell disaster for evacuees. Miles of lodgepole pine forest surrounds the neighborhood, and a winding network of unlit dirt roads would make evacuation risky, especially at night. So they partnered with Deschutes County Project Wildfire to install highly reflective road signs indicating the nearest evacuation routes. If a route is blocked? Law enforcement can change the direction of the arrows to indicate a safer route.
In the spring of 2019, the Deschutes National Forest implemented a prescribed fire in the area to reduce overgrown surface vegetation and eliminate ladder fuels. This activity was part of land management efforts by the US Forest Service including a timber sale and mechanical thinning in the previous few years. The work also served to protect the nearby communities and restore forest health and habitats.
Fuels treatments such as mechanical thinning and prescribed fire don’t always prevent a fire from happening, but in this case, prescribed fire provided a clear example of how they can help maintain healthier and more resilient landscapes. As you can see in the photo below, the treated portion of the stand fared much better during this fire and gave firefighters a safer place to halt its advance.
It Doesn’t Matter What Color Your Truck Is
In addition to the efforts made prior to this human-caused fire, it’s worth noting that even though the fire started on US Forest Service-managed land, several fire agencies were involved in the response: La Pine Fire District (local), Walker Range Fire Protection Association (local), Oregon Department of Forestry, Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service – a truly integrated wildfire response. As I’ve heard many fire managers in Central Oregon say before, “When fire starts here it doesn’t matter what color your truck is, we all coordinate for a safe, effective wildfire response.” Green noted in her blog that, “Local resources have made a point to work better together rather than letting boundaries, inefficiencies and egos get in the way of fire suppression. Our local firefighting agency leaders work tirelessly on planning and coordination year-round to ensure they can be as effective and safe as possible.”
This fire did not become a tragedy thanks to the combined efforts of stakeholders in the Rosland Road area of La Pine. It successfully tested the collaborative, all hands – all lands approach of the Cohesive Strategy and reinforced the notion that when we work across boundaries in a collaborative manner towards Resilient Landscapes, Fire Adapted Communities and a Safe, Effective Wildfire Response, the outcomes can be impressively positive!
Green also noted that the work completed on private lands and fuels reduction on public lands was funded through a private/public investment called the Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership. This project recognizes that wildfire does not respect lines on the map. Consequently, project managers in Central Oregon strive to fund and complete work in a strategic manner across boundaries and ownerships. Very Cohesive Strategy! 👍
In talking about this event with Green again this week, she reiterated, “Under an umbrella of active collaboration, private and public agencies, entities, groups, and individuals came together to address the three most prevalent wildfire challenges facing the La Pine area. The actions of learning, working, and training across boundaries, taking personal responsibility, and building relationships before smoke was in the air all contributed to the positive outcome of the Rosland Road Fire.”
This is a great story to share with your stakeholders about how we can learn to live with wildland fire. It doesn’t happen overnight and it takes the whole village! And while you’re at it, don’t forget to hammer home the human-caused fire prevention messaging. 🔥 😊