The Oregon Department of Forestry has taken the lead on preparing a community wildfire protection plan for Wallowa County. On Sept. 9 at the Wallowa Senior Center ODF Unit Forester Andy White and Assistant Unit Forester Matt Howard teamed with county commissioner Mike Hayward and county geographic information system coordinator Dawn Smith to present the fourth of five public meetings staged to solicit community feedback on what the local plan should entail.
Because of the extreme wildfire season in 2000, the federal government has drafted a National Fire Plan that is providing millions of dollars for community fire planning and fuels reduction work across the nation.
The plan to be drafted for Wallowa County, according to information supplied by White, Howard and Smith, will define and prioritize areas of high risk of wildfire in order to target and coordinate mitigation strategies on public and private land. In addition to mapped fuel concentration locations in the county and another map that tracked a 30-to 35-year history of recorded fires started both by lighting and humans, the meeting facilitators have been asking those attending the sessions about what local values are at risk to wildfires.
Interface areas such as the Upper Lostine Canyon, Bear Creek, Allen Canyon Loop, Ferguson Ridge, the south end of Wallowa Lake and the Imnaha River Woods have all been mentioned as areas of concern.
Howard noted that fuels buildups on Tick Hill and Green Hill, on both the north and south sides of the City of Wallowa, could present a fire hazard.
Much of the Wallowa meeting was spent with the small audience listing general and specific values that could be threatened by wildfires. Wallowa mayor Ron Philbrook said that a fire in the Wallowa River Canyon where WURR excursion train riders and river rafters now enjoy the scenery would negatively impact the community. Former fire chief and mayor John Duckworth said that a major fire would diminish grazing and game values.
Bear Creek resident Janet Goebel said a catastrophic wildfire would hurt recreation into the Eagle Cap Wilderness as well as local fisheries.
Although White said, "These are a lot of things we've heard elsewhere," Howard said, "You are giving us one of the more complete lists that we've had at a public meeting."
Howard spoke about the emergency services portion of the plan, emphasizing the importance not only of educating the public on what fire services are available, but stressing the need for cooperation between the ODF, Forest Service, city and rural fire departments, emergency management office, Wallowa County sheriff, Oregon State Police, search and rescue, and the private sector.
"Structural protection is looking pretty good at this end of the valley," Howard told Wallowa residents who are served both by a city and rural fire department. He said that residents in Imnaha and Troy are basically without coverage and must rely heavily on preventative measures such as fuels reduction and hazard mitigation.
White spoke of defensible space, defined as the area between a house and an oncoming wildfire where the vegetation has been modified to reduce the wildfire threat and to provide an opportunity for firefighters to effectively defend the house.
Neither the ODF nor the Forest Service will go into a building to fight a structural fire.
Jack and Janet Goebel live outside Wallowa's rural fire protection district and are protected by ODF, which will respond to a fire call and do all it can to keep any wildfire from spreading to their home. Jack Goebel said, through fuel reduction efforts, he is trying to create a 10-acre defensible space around his home.
The goal from the public meetings is to create a draft Wallowa County community fire protection plan by late September, put that draft out for additional public comment and present a final plan in February. Howard said the plan will be a "living document" that will be updated on a yearly basis.