FireWise organization to kick off Saturday

Duncan Gavin of Eric Sinclair Tree Service loads a small diameter Grand Fir into a chipper as part of a winter forest-thinning project on Rick Welches' land in the High Lostine Subdivision.

There’s no question that wildfires — forest and shrubland conflagrations, mostly at the urban-wild land interface — are increasingly destructive. In 2017, 66,131 wildfire torched around 9.8 million acres in the U.S. That’s almost double the 5.6 million acres that burned in 2016 according to statistics

Although nearly 20,000 acres burned in several Wallowa County wildfires last year, landowners escaped major destruction of homes and loss of life. But in the future, we might not be so lucky. So folks are taking action, including participating in a nationwide program known as FireWise.

FireWise, sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association, inspires and encourages landowners to prepare their homes to survive wildfires.

But Wallowa County is taking FireWise to the next level: improving not just home-sites, but also adjacent privately–owned small forests’ resilience and resistance to wildfire.

Wallowa Resources, a nonprofit based in Enterprise, fosters sustainable use of natural resources and sustainable jobs in resource management. Firewise is part of Wallowa Resource’s Family Forest program, the My Blue Mountains Partnership — a collaborative of private landowners, nonprofits and public organizations that work across four northeast Oregon counties: Union, Umatilla, Baker and Wallowa.

“Our goal is to energize landowners,” said Wallowa Resources’ Family Forest program coordinator Alyssa Cudmore. “Beyond just making dwellings more resilient to fire, we want to help land owners also make their forests more resilient and encourage holistic management among neighbors — especially for fire reduction, whether they own 5 acres or 100 acres.”

This process includes thinning the understory of ladder-fuel — usually young grand fir — and removing small-diameter trees to allow larger more fire-resistant trees to be healthier. Many thinning projects use equipment that shreds this small material, leaving the wood and needles to decompose in place and return to the forest soil.

“My Blue Mountain Woodland has recently been awarded $1.74 million grant to help landowners manage forests for fire along the Wallowa Mountain front –– the most densely-inhabited urban-wildland interface in the area.” Cudmore said.

The Lostine Canyon FireWise Community has also recently received a $500 “Wildfire Community Preparedness Day Award,” sponsored by State Farm and the National Fire Protection Association.

The newly released, 2017 Wallowa County Community Wildfire Protection Plan identifies Allen Canyon/Bear Creek/Minam, Imnaha Corridor Lostine Canyon and Wallowa Lake/Ski Run areas as being at the most extreme risk from wildfire.

“Those are the places where funds from this five-year grant will first be made available,” Cudmore said.

In the steep, densely forested Lostine River Canyon, homeowners are already taking action to minimize fire risk and become a certified FireWise community. They include the 25 or so homeowners in the High Lostine Subdivision adjacent to the US Forest Service boundary, and others in the more open Lower Canyon.

“It’s kind of a full-court press,” said Ron Polk, President of the Homeowner Association. “We are planning some talks, and also some training. Landowners here are already thinning their timbered land.”

Lostine Canyon residents will be conducting their initial meeting as the first FireWise Community in Northeast Oregon 10 a.m. Saturday, April 14, at Southfork Grant in Lostine.

Residents will have the opportunity to review an overall assessment of their community’s wildfire preparedness, as well as examples of individual structural assessments and property assessments that have already been conducted by fire officials, free of charge, for interested residents and property owners.

At the session, the $500 check will be turned over to to the Lostine Fire Department Chief Dusty Tippett to service a Type 6 Brush Engine, which is stationed in the community to allow for a rapid response by residents to a fire start.

On Saturday, May 5, the Lostine Canyon FireWise Community is participating in national “Wildfire Community Preparedness Day” activities, which will consist of training on the newly refurbished Type 6 Brush Engine, as well on operation of the High Lostine subdivision’s fire hydrant system.

Mike Eng, who lives on forested land in the lower portion of the Lostine River Canyon, has helped write a $500 grant funded by State Farm Insurance and the National Fire Protection Association to refurbish the Lostine Fire Department’s Type 6 Brush Fire truck.

“It’s sort of a first line of defense,” he said. “It holds 225 gallons of water and pumps at 150 gallons per minute through a 200-foot hose. It’s meant to stop a spot ignition or keep fire at bay until the fire department can get here. It’s a start.”

On May 15 –– National Fire Protection Day –– Lostine Canyon homeowners will learn to operate the refurbished engine, and also use the system of hydrants on the High Lostine Subdivision. They’ll also develop an action plan for using the engine, which will be parked at the High Lostine Subdivision.

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