Preparing for emergencies is up to each of us


Last updated 5/21/2023 at 8:50am

Photo by Sue Stafford

Devin Thompson of the McKenzie Valley Long-Term Recovery Group offers eye-opening insights at a C4C town hall on emergency preparedness last week.

Do you know what to do in case of an emergency in Sisters? How can you prepare ahead of time for an emergency?

At last week's forum "Emergencies in Sisters: Be Prepared," sponsored by Citizens4Community (C4C), residents had the opportunity to listen to and ask questions of six agency representatives and one citizen, all of whom deal with emergencies on a regular basis.

Sisters resident Jack McGowan, who sits on the Sisters-Camp Sherman Rural Fire District Board of Directors, is a private citizen who has spent 38 years deeply involved with emergency preparedness.

McKenzie Valley resident Devin Thompson shared his experience with the 2020 Holiday Farm fire that destroyed 517 homes and burned 173,393 acres centered on the McKenzie River Valley in Lane County. The residents used to call the surrounding hillsides of timber the "Asbestos Forest" – it would never burn. But it did. Out of his experience during and after that fire, Thompson helped establish the McKenzie Valley Long-Term Response Group (MVLTRG), something he urges the citizens of Sisters to organize now - before we have a large emergency come to Sisters. Emergencies include wildfires, floods, earthquakes, toxic hazard spills, or large influxes of people from areas west of the Cascades - anything that requires a community-wide response in times of disaster.

Hopefully, local citizens will want to get such an organization up and running. However, adequate emergency preparedness begins with each individual Sisters resident. In the time of disaster, all the professionals are going to be focusing on infrastructure, the actual emergency, and those people who truly need assistance to get to safety - the elderly and disabled, those with no transportation, and those with specific medical needs.

Sergeant Nathan Garibay, the Deschutes County emergency manager in the Sheriff's Office, likes to say, "We're not safe unless all are safe." As an individual, identify your neighbors who may need assistance in case of emergency and plan how you can help them.

McGowan urges everyone to have a "go bag" packed and ready to provide 72 hours' worth of supplies needed to survive. Don't forget medications and copies of legal documents like driver's licenses and birth certificates for each member of the household. Thompson said that to begin to apply for assistance from the state or federal government, you must be able to prove your identity.

A list of what to include in a 72-hour go bag is available from the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office (DCSO). The bag doesn't have to be assembled all at once. McGowan suggests each time you go to Bi-Mart, Hoyt's, Ace Hardware, and Ray's, or other stores, pick up a few items on the list until you have everything you need. The important thing is to start today.

Following the recent big lightning storm, McGowan and his wife, Jan, made use of their emergency supplies for about a week after all their circuits were fried by a lightning strike. They used their 55 gallons of stored water for all their water needs because their well pump was inoperable without power.

Steps you can take as an individual include: prepare a home emergency kit or go bag, make a family communications plan, and get to know your neighbors and talk about preparedness together. Many organizations have printed materials available at their offices or on their websites. The American Red Cross has an emergency preparedness brochure. The DCSO has a family emergency preparedness handbook from their emergency management office that can be downloaded.

Check with your insurance agent to be sure you have adequate coverage. Register for the alert warning system at to receive information about emergency evacuations, severe weather, flooding, gas leaks, police activity, and more.

Other sources for more preparedness information include: the Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire Department, Oregon Department of Emergency Management: Individual Preparedness, Oregon State University extension service, which has materials to help before and during disasters. They also offer a free, award-winning, self-guided, three-part training, Preparing for the Cascadia Subduction Zone Event, available online at

A term often heard around Sisters is "defensible space." Because so many homes in Sisters Country are built in and around forests, they become part of the wildland urban interface (WUI). Embers and small flames are the main way many homes ignite in wildfires. Embers can be carried by the wind more than a mile and can cause spot fires and ignite homes, debris, and other objects.

To make and keep Sisters Country as safe as possible from the devastating effects of wildfire, it is up to each citizen to do their part of cleaning up their property and creating defensible space. Neighborhoods and subdivisions can become designated as Firewise by using Firewise principles to protect homes including landscape design and vegetation management. They meet a set of voluntary criteria on an annual basis. For more information, contact the Sisters Ranger District.

If your home is surrounded by vegetation close to the house, has bark dust right up to the foundation, bird blocks with no or large gauge screening, a wood shingle roof, or woodpiles next to the house, you are at increased risk of losing your home to wildfire.

Creating correct defensible space around your house gives you an 85 percent chance of the house surviving during a wildfire. That space can be divided into three main zones. The immediate zone is zero to five feet from the house and should be non-combustible. This is the most important zone so start with the house and move into the landscaping zone.

The intermediate zone is five to 30 feet from the house. Landscaping/hardscaping or creating breaks can help decrease the risk of fire reaching the house. Trees or clumps of tree in this area should have a minimum of 18 feet between treetops. The extended zone runs 30 to 100 feet, out to 200 feet, from the house. The goal here is to interrupt fire's path and keep flames smaller and on the ground. In the 30-to-60-foot zone, trees or clumps of trees should have a minimum of 12 feet between treetops. At 60 to 100 feet out, trees should have a minimum of six feet between treetops. Information explaining the tasks to be completed in each zone is available on a number of online sources.

For all disaster preparedness, be sure to follow the guidelines listed in a variety of materials available locally and online.

(Editdor’s note: This story was edited to correct the number of houses lost in the Holiday Farm Fire).


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