Fire in the neighborhood


Last updated 8/16/2022 at Noon


Sheryl Rudolph investigates a burned juniper. Fire is part of the landscape of the High Desert.

My family has lived in Sisters Country close to 30 years. I still remember our first summer, with snow on July 4, and then lightning strikes in September. I stood holding my baby, looking out at lightning exploding juniper trees as dark ominous clouds moved toward our ranch. I felt helpless, unprepared, and vulnerable.

A week later, tendrils of smoke began to spiral up from fire still present in the roots of the trees struck earlier. We were lucky that time, with firefighters and airplanes spotting the fires and putting them out. Each year, there’s a variation on that theme. But one thing is constant: Fire is part of the deal if you choose to live in the High Desert.

I remember the words of an old-timer whose family homesteaded near our house off Fryrear Road.

He said the area was called “Lightning Alley” by the folks who’d tried to make a go of it as dry-land wheat farmers.

He and I took a hike down into the canyon system near our home and he pointed out the blackened remains of old-growth trees scorched by a raging fire that swept through the canyon system over 100 years ago.

There was beauty in the sculptured, obsidian-black trunks that curled like smoke from the rock and soil still holding them erect.

I remember imagining what it must have been like during that firestorm.

With today’s terminology making Fire Season a common descriptor of the summer months across the West, it’s impossible to escape the fact that we’re all vulnerable to fires.

The Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) was instructed to lay out a plan created by Senate Bill 762. So far, their efforts, no matter how well-intentioned, have been less than reassuring. According to the ODF website, the bill passed with bipartisan support will provide more than $220 million to help Oregon modernize and improve wildfire preparedness through three key strategies: creating fire-adapted communities, developing safe and effective response, and increasing the resiliency of Oregon’s landscapes. The bill is the product of years of work by the Governor’s Wildfire Council, the Legislature, and state agencies.

The legislation provides direction and investment to many state agencies. For the Board of Forestry and the Department of Forestry the bill, among other things, provides legislative direction regarding the wildland-urban interface, statewide fire risk mapping, prescribed fire; directed the Department to review and clarify the enforcement of rules pertaining to forestland; sets baseline standards for unprotected and under-protected lands in Oregon; and establishes grant programs to improve forest restoration and resiliency.

My family received a letter from the Department of Forestry’s Fire Protection Division letting us know we live in the wildland-urban interface and our property has been identified as being in the High risk class (they bolded the word High). We were given links to a detailed homeowner’s report and a map to show us information about the designation process. We clicked on the links and found them to be broken or, at best, confusing and unhelpful.

On Wednesday, August 10, a neighbor and I attended a meeting put on by the Department of Forestry to explain what went wrong with the map, links, and general overall rollout of the plan for SB 762. There were over 150 people present, including the media. Many were obviously concerned, angry, and wanting answers. A representative from OSU, who helped create the map, answered questions as well. I was equal parts sorry for the three men facing the unhappy crowd, and frustrated that they rolled out a program that was obviously not ready for prime time. They did their best to explain what they were trying to accomplish, and admitted they would need to do better in the future.

Our neighborhood has already begun the process of becoming a designated Firewise Community, which is a process of beginning fire mitigation work on our properties. We have spent thousands of dollars and hours of labor to create defensible spaces around our homes — and that’s just the first year. We’re also reading more about building code requirements. To begin the process, we organized a visit from representatives from the Cloverdale Rural Fire Protection District, the Oregon Department of Forestry, and the Deschutes County Fire Mitigation task force. We’re glad we’d already started working on this, but we’re also concerned if what we’ve done so far will be enough.

The recent storm that roared across Sisters Country last week brought hundreds of lightning strikes, some landing all around us. One neighbor had a strike that hit their house. Knowing that fire may still be present in the roots of the struck trees, we’re all keeping watch for any smoke near us. It feels like the increase in temperature, along with the 10-year drought Central Oregon is in, is all culminating in a much higher chance that fires will impact Sisters Country again.

Getting in touch with local agencies to learn what you can do to protect your home is a step we all can do for ourselves and each other. The more each homeowner does to prepare, the less chance a fire can take hold and cause devastation to property and our very lives.

I’m hopeful the Department of Forestry folks have walked away from their mistakes with a stronger resolve to do better, be more prepared, and do the jobs we taxpayers pay them to do. It’s time for them to step up and help us survive another summer, and the one after that, and one after that…


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