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By Ian Reid 

Reducing wildfire risk, not just blowing smoke


Last updated 6/20/2023 at 10:19am

Public land management benefits from a diverse suite of opinions. Opinions are derived from values and working with those who have different value sets while trying to find common ground is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. Sometimes it’s difficult to separate fact from opinion, as public land management and the science behind it is complex. And sometimes, science is normative; that is, produced or construed by those to further a specific value-based agenda.

All that said, I cringed when I read a recent statement stating fuels treatments were ineffective and that people only needed to be concerned with a five-foot buffer around their homes. The logic used in that statement suggested that because cities had burned down with adjacent public land fuels treatments, that the treatments did not work and should not be conducted.

To me, that is like saying because rafters and kayakers occasionally drown while wearing lifejackets, PFDs are useless and should not be worn while running rivers. Personally, I would never run a rapid without wearing one. It’s important to consider that creating defensible space around your home and fuels treatments in the wildland urban interface are not mutually exclusive, rather they are complementary. The home ignition zone receives embers from the adjacent forested lands that produce embers.

To provide some factual context for the efficacy of local fuels treatments, we queried our national Fuel Treatment Effective Monitoring database. In only the last four years, between 2018 and 2021, there were 41 wildfires on the Sisters Ranger District that interacted with areas that had previously received fuels treatments, such as thinning/logging, mowing/mastication of brush, and prescribed burning. Of those 41 fires, 35 showed positive effects from the fuels treatments in either reducing fire behavior or in aiding in control, for a treatment effectiveness of 85 percent. I reckon a lifejacket that works almost nine times out of 10 is worth wearing.

Expanding on the river- running analogy, here are some different safety considerations I use on whitewater trips to reduce the risk of a bad outcome: lifejacket, throw bag, extra oar, patch kit and tools, first aid kit, map, weather forecast, whistle, carabiners and rope, pre-trip safety briefing. An analogous integrated list for community wildfire mitigation might look something like: fuels treatments in the interface, defensible space around the home, “go-bag” and evacuation plan assembled, coordinated response protocol by well-trained first responders, robust fire prevention program, Firewise USA community designation, checking/updating your home insurance policy, home hardening/vent screens, address signs well marked, and clear ingress for emergency vehicles. The synergistic approach to preparing for either event cannot be overstated. Ultimately, in community wildfire mitigation, as in river running, risk can never be fully eliminated as the recent rafting tragedy of a well-prepared group along the Grand Ronde River reminds us (La Grande Observer, June 15).

In the spirit of transparency, we welcome feedback on our project development and enjoy meeting with community members to listen to opinions and review projects together. We had some excellent public interactions during our community open house in March and on our community leader-prescribed fire field trip in May, and we hope to expand these field trips in the future.

Moving on to permanent staffing updates, we have hired Beverly Clement as archeologist, Liz Day as wildlife biologist, Sarah Rodriguez as wilderness manager, Jessie Larson as special use permit administrator, Charles White as wilderness volunteer coordinator, Leah Beebe as customer service representative, Megan Saylors and Jyota Smith Howard as fuels technicians, and Adrianna Weickhardt as fire prevention technician. Other permanent fire employees hired are: Gavin Kearns, Carson Baxter, TJ Whitehall, Sara Welge, Stephen Hanson, Dylan Lenger, Chris Van Diemen, and Lucas Winkler. We are also excited to welcome Dan Durfee as the new deputy district ranger in Sisters who will provide leadership support. And we congratulate Lisa Paddock and Vince Grace, as they retired after a combined 27 years on the Sisters Ranger District!

Have a wonderful summer, stay safe out there, and don’t forget your lifejacket!


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