WALLOWA LAKE — If this year’s fires in the Northwest have taught nothing else, it’s that no community is immune to flames.
That’s part of the reason that residents and businesses at the south end of Wallowa Lake are working to form the county’s second Firewise community.
“The Firewise program helps landowners understand how to make their individual buildings and property more resistant to wildfire, collaborate on making the overall community less fire-prone, provide a safe-zone and develop a community evacuation plan,” said Wallowa County Firewise Community Coordinator Lisa Mahon.
Firewise communities also can apply for grants to help with the costs of equipment, thinning, and other community efforts, she said. Participating in a Firewise community may also help woodland homeowners reduce their spiraling costs for property insurance. Participation in the program, she noted, is entirely voluntary.
The Firewise community program was developed by the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association. In Eastern Oregon, there are several certified Firewise communities in Grant County one in Baker County and one in Wallowa County’s Lostine River Canyon.
“We’re sitting on a tinderbox up at the lake,” said Dave Hurley, owner of Eagle Cap Chalets and board member of the Wallowa Lake Rural Fire Protection District.
“If a fire ever got started up in one of those canyons and came towards the lake,” he said, “it could be as disastrous as any of those other towns that have been wiped out in the last couple of years.”
The Wallowa County areas at extreme fire risk were identified in the 2017 Wallowa County Community Fire Protection Plan. They include Wallowa Lake Village, the West Moraine, Old Ski Run Road, the Imnaha River Canyon, the Imnaha River Woods, the Allen Canyon area, Bear Creek south of Wallowa and the Lostine River Canyon area.
Residents of the Wallowa Lake area, especially Wallowa Lake Village at the south end of the lake, are in the process of forming the county’s second Firewise community.
“It’s a community effort,” Mahon said. “It’s organized and maintained by the residents and businesses. There’s no government agency that’s going to require you to do things.”
Diane Lienkaemper, president of the Wallowa Lake Property Owners Association and a former wildland firefighter, is enthusiastic about establishing the county’s newest Firewise community. And she’s also working with homeowners on the adjacent fire-prone West Moraine and Old Ski Run Road (Mount Joseph) areas who have shown some interest in establishing Firewise communities as well.
The planning for a Firewise program has been in the works for at least two years., Lienkaemper said. “The emergence of the Lostine River project a year ago has motivated residents and organizations to step up their efforts. The Wallowa Lake Village tour took place Aug. 14, at the request of the WLPOA, as the first step in developing a Firewise plan. “
Lienkaemper said that the Wallowa Lake community has some extra challenges in establishing a Firewise community and fire plan.
“We have hikers in the mountains, people at the state park, the Methodist Church camp when its back in business, residences, tourists … a one-lane bridge that services a whole half of the community,” she said. “It’s a small area but it’s a complex area.”
“One of the things we can work on,” said Tom Groat, vice president of the Wallowa Lake Fire Protection District Board of Directors, “is an evacuation plan, and make people aware of what to do when it’s time to get out of here.”
Fellow district board member Hurley is hoping that the board and the Firewise community also will pursue partnerships with state and federal agencies “… to try to reduce the fuels up there (on public lands).”
“Given what’s happened in the past few years, I think it’s a good idea and I think it’s kind of dumb if we don’t take some kind of action,” Hurley said.
Wallowa Resources’ Forestland Program Manager, Alyssa Cudmore, is working with Mahon and Lienkaemper to produce an assessment of the fire risks and remedies of the Wallowa Lake Village area, an important next step so that property owners know what actions to take.
“You review the community’s strengths and vulnerabilities if you had a catastrophic event like a wildfire. It is almost from the emergency responder’s perspective,” Cudmore said. “It’s the overall look at the community and its setting.”
They are getting help from Irene Jerome, Firewise community coordinator in Grant County. Jerome has first-hand experience in the value of Firewise. When the brutal 2015 Canyon Creek complex fire scorched more than 110,000 Grant County acres in 2015, and destroyed 43 homes, the homes in the Firewise community of Pine Creek on the north slopes of Canyon Mountain survived the flames, although the forest around them was incinerated.
Lostine River Canyon Firewise community leader Michael Eng gives the program an enthusiastic thumbs up.
“Learning how to live in an area historically prone to wildfire is becoming more and more essential as climate change accelerates,” he said. “Firewise is the best program available to assist communities to customize their own approach to reducing their risks and preparing for wildfire.”