High risk for wildfire continues in Sisters

 

Last updated 3/29/2022 at Noon



Sisters is probably going to be in the high or extreme risk category for wildfire according to the Statewide Map of Wildfire Risk, which will be completed by June 30, 2022, and available to the public.

Sisters Fire Chief Roger Johnson said that risk level would be due to the city’s small geographic footprint and its proximity to the Deschutes National Forest on three sides.

The risk assessment map is only one of a number of programs and tools being brought online statewide because of the passage of SB 762, “the most sweeping fire legislation in the state of Oregon in the last 30 to 40 years,” according to Johnson.

The impetus for the legislation was the report published in 2019 by the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response created to address growing wildfire problems in the state and the changing wildfire reality over the past decade in Oregon and the West. Governor Kate Brown signed the bill into law on July 30, 2021. The bill covers a myriad of issues related to wildfire mitigation and preparedness, which have been clarified by the rule-making process at the state level.

Besides the statewide risk map, SB 762 addresses other areas, including electric systems, defensible space guidelines, health systems for smoke, wildfire risk reduction, the Oregon Conservation Corps, small forestland management, prescribed fire, protected areas (those that currently have no fire protection, like Lower Bridge), wildfire response capacity, wildland/urban interface (WUI), and establishing the Office of State Wildfire Program Director and advisory council.

The SB 762 information was shared by Johnson at a first-ever joint meeting on March 15 of the Sisters City Council and the Fire District Board of Directors, which included all the partner agencies with which they collaborate to provide wildfire preparedness and mitigation efforts. Each attendee shared what their agency is doing to be fire ready, and the list is impressive.

Johnson outlined the Zonehaven Evacuation Plan pilot program just wrapping up in Deschutes and Jackson counties. He said those two counties are leading the state in zone evacuation planning. The system provides the community with critical evacuation updates, resources, and latest updates on active incidents, all on one platform. All a person needs to know is what zone they are in. It is already in use in 72 countries. Johnson is hopeful the program will be fully funded going forward.

Brent ten Pas of Central Electric Cooperative shared innovative programs they are instituting as well as reporting that CEC already has their fire mitigation plan completed and done as part of SB 762. They are participating in a Texas A&M pilot program in Camp Sherman with equipment that detects low-level electrical disturbances in their system and relays that information to headquarters. They have “reclose” equipment, which acts like a circuit breaker in a house and shuts down the power. (The Nugget will report on CEC’s measures in the April 6 edition.)

On Wednesday, May 11, at 7 p.m., CEC will host a virtual meeting for the co-op’s members to explain information regarding potential shut-off of electricity due to wildfire danger. Members will be receiving information about the meeting.

Sisters District Ranger Ian Reid reported that the U.S. Forest Service has a new 10-year crisis strategy for treating 20 million acres of national forest. The Pacific Northwest is one of the areas selected, including Southwest Oregon, Central Oregon, and Central Washington. According to Reid, the Sisters fire-shed is ranked number one for risk and priority, so they will be doing more fuel treatment now that the treatment on Green Ridge is finished. The Sisters office is also working with CEC on clearing vegetation along rights-of-way.

James Osborne, USFS fire manager, reported that fuels crews are tying into the scar from the Milli fire to build an additional fire barrier outside Sisters.

Deschutes County Forester Ed Keith talked about discretionary grants for the County’s Firewise program. Seventeen communities have applied for $575,000 in Firewise funds. There is also $6.25 million in grants for landscape resiliency. Over the next 16 months, the County and its many partners will employ the largest funding stream in the state ($14 million+) to work on wildfire mitigation efforts with private landowners, Black Butte Ranch, Deschutes Land Trust, and County properties from Camp Sherman to Upper Klamath County. A $50,000 Joint Chiefs Fund will increase funds available for work on private lands from Camp Sherman south toward Bend.

Fire Adapted Communities Coordinator for Deschutes County Boone Zimmerlee announced FireFree dates for free disposal of yard debris – Knott Landfill, April 30-May 15 and Fryrear Transfer Station, May 21-June 4.

Nathan Garibay of the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Management reported his office, in cooperation with public works departments in municipalities, are working on plans for evacuation routes and execution in the case of wildfire. They are attempting to preload decision points into the system with plans and information to provide quick, accurate response times in the event of an emergency.

In April they will be identifying key traffic intersections around the county in the event of required evacuations. They are also honing an alert warning system and practices. Garibay highlighted the intertwined and overlapping programs and services of all the agencies involved and how that allows for a holistic approach to emergency management.

Craig Letz of Tamarack Fire Consulting reported on the work he is currently doing for the City of Sisters on fire risk assessment and mitigation efforts. His contract requires that he confer with all the City’s fire-related partners to identify the priority treatment areas.

Gordon Foster of Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) highlighted that SB 762 established the Oregon Conservation Corps (OCC) program for the purposes of reducing the risk posed by wildfire to communities and critical infrastructure, creating fire-adapted communities, and engaging youth and young adults in workforce training. Foster said OCC personnel will increase ODF’s capacity with additional personnel.

Ross Huffman of ODF reported that over 2,000 acres of forest west of Sisters are being treated to improve fire resistance. They are conducting roadside mastication and working with private landowners. He reported there are 11 Firewise communities in the Sisters area, including Black Butte Ranch.

Heather Miller of the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office acts as a liaison among all the partners, connecting agencies and communities and informing them regarding available funding for wildfire mitigation and prevention efforts.

Although this was the first joint meeting of its kind with the City and the Fire District, those in attendance voiced positive support for meeting together on a regular basis to keep everyone informed on efforts being made to reduce the risk of devastating damage from wildfires.

Fire District Board Chair Chuck Newport closed the meeting, saying he is pleased to see more engagement with the City.

Note: This story has been edited to reflect the correct dates for the Fryrear Transfer Station Fire Free event).

 

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