Burning questions


Last updated 5/16/2023 at 1:49pm

Sisters has a lot to be proud of in the agencies that work to protect our community.

The Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire District, supported by Cloverdale and Black Butte Ranch fire districts, responded quickly and effectively to a raging inferno that consumed two RVs in the woods just outside Sisters Saturday night. Jason Barber, a fire manager with the U.S. Forest Service, told me that “the fire department crushed that — it was great.”

And it was. Local firefighters attacked the fire, and kept it from spreading into the surrounding woods. There was only a small spot fire caused by some embers, and Forest Service firefighters were right on top of that.

In the wake of the blaze, on Monday morning, a State Fire Marshal’s Office investigator came out to try to determine a cause of the blaze. She interviewed one of the occupants of one of the trailers, and treated this woman who had just lost everything she had in the world with dignity and respect. As did a local sheriff’s deputy and personnel from the Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire District. They did their jobs effectively and professionally, and with empathy and compassion.

The incident showed the best of local professional first responders.

It also raises some serious questions. For a couple of years now, residents near the edges of Sisters have expressed their concerns about the large number of semipermanent campers living in the forest. They raise a number of considerations, from sanitation to personal security in the woods — but the biggest liability is fire danger. Saturday night’s episode illustrated that risk in vivid hues.

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If it had broken out on a hot, dry August night with a wind behind it, the fire could have posed a significant threat to other nearby campsites, the Best Western Ponderosa Lodge, and the residences along Pine Street.

One commenter on The Nugget’s Facebook post on the incident said: “Sooner or later one of these encampments is going to cause a fire large enough to cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. When will we finally start cracking down on this? We literally have small towns popping up in Deschutes N.F. Two weeks ago the Forest Service was conducting controlled burns and simply worked around the long-term illegal encampments that were in the way. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.”

That sentiment is not out of line, and it poses a question that Sisters — along with many other communities across the West — struggles to answer: What is to be done?

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It must be said that forest dwellers are not alone in creating a potential for significant fires. Over the past 30 years, I’ve come across far too many recreational campfires still smoldering in the woods. Also last weekend, an escaped debris fire burned about three acres on private land north of Camp Sherman. All of us need to be mindful and careful with fire.

But we can’t elide the reality that having a lot of folks — many of whom struggle with daily living — camped indefinitely in a forest that will soon be tinder-dry poses a clear and present danger. The risk is real — not only for residences on the edge of town, but also for those living in the forest.

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The Forest Service has been resistant to the idea of creating no-camping buffer zones close to town. The concern is that if they create one buffer zone, residents will clamor for others, squeezing down the amount of public land available for camping. And, there is an argument that it’s better to have non-recreational camping sited in areas that have been treated to reduce fuels and are accessible to firefighters, rather than pushing such camps deeper into the woods.

The Forest Service ramps up patrols during the summer, particularly on big holiday weekends, focusing on campfires.

That’s all cold comfort to people who feel like their homes and safety are being placed at risk. Many local folks want to see the Forest Service simply enforce the 14-day camping limit that is on the books. That’s a proposition that is simple on the face of it, but apparently difficult to execute with limited practical authorities and staff capacity. Perhaps when a new law enforcement officer comes on the Sisters Ranger District in June, some creative ideas can percolate to the surface.

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What’s certain is that the status quo cannot continue.

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

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Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit www.frontierpartisans.com.


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