Establishing Firewise communities in Grant County has been a work in progress, Firewise Coordinator Irene Jerome told the Eagle. There were a number of distractions last summer — the eclipse, the Rainbow Gathering and the fire season. But there is some progress to report.
The Grant County Firewise Communities program received $40,531 from the federal Secure Rural Schools program for this year. Jerome notes that Grant County’s rural areas lack structural fire protection services, but more is needed than just cleaning up fuels around homes to create defensible spaces: Communities also need evacuation plans.
“Fires move fast in some areas, and resources are limited,” Jerome said.
The process to designate a Firewise community begins with a risk assessment conducted by a local fire chief and an Oregon Department of Forestry representative, she said. Jerome writes up a report, the community develops a timeline and project list and the documents go to Salem and the National Fire Protection Association for approval.
Jerome approves funding for community projects, which could include improving access by strengthening bridges or brushing roadways, improving emergency communication by setting up phone trees or gathering contact information, helping elderly or disabled neighbors with residential projects or providing improved mapping.
Kyle Sullivan at the Grant County Soil and Water Conservation District was hired for the map work, combining topography with county assessor data and other information. Jerome noted that the county provided important map information to the incident commander during the 2015 Canyon Creek Complex fire.
The Firewise program has seen some notable successes: Cleanup work around the Pine Creek Firewise community reduced impacts from the Canyon Creek Complex fire, Jerome said. Getting additional areas interested in becoming Firewise communities might require new approaches, however. Jerome, for example, is considering having local school students help spread the word through social media.
In some places, communities want the federal government to do its part in reducing fire threats on nearby public lands. Jerome noted that developing Forest Service projects is hampered by National Environmental Policy Act requirements. A categorical exclusion to NEPA requirements limits projects to 70 acres, which is not adequate for most fire projects, she said.
Talks nonetheless are underway for a fire project on the Malheur National Forest near the Laycock Creek area, which is in the process of being designated a Firewise community, Jerome said. A proposal also has been made for a project on the Umatilla National Forest near Monument, she said.
Jerome said she has traveled to Granite several times and met with the city council without successfully establishing a Firewise community. Granite is a “vulnerable community,” she said, but good news is on the horizon. The Ten Cent Community Wildfire Protection Project for lands on the Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman national forests surrounding Granite was recently approved following a lengthy NEPA process.
The purpose of the project is to “reduce the risks of large and severe wildfires” and to protect firefighters by reducing ladder fuels and stand densities. The 37,800-acre project lies within the Granite Creek watershed and encompasses the communities of Granite and Greenhorn.
The multi-year project calls for commercial harvesting, small tree thinning, mechanical fuel treatments, landscape burning and roadside hazard tree removal. The project design also considered objectives identified in the Grant County Community Wildfire Protection Plan, which identified the Granite zone as a high-risk area.
According to Andrew Stinchfield at the North Fork John Day Ranger District, the Vinegar Fire in 2013 burned 1,200-1,300 acres west of Greenhorn. Blowing embers are the main threat, he said.
Stinchfield said the Forest Service hopes to sign off one of the project’s timber sales in September and start thinning projects in 2019. Funding will be needed for the thinning projects, he said, and some firewood opportunities are possible. Forest Service crews will work this summer on implementing the Ten Cent project, he said.
How Dayville became interested in becoming a Firewise community is an unusual story. Following a wildfire at the Phillip W. Schneider Wildlife Area, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife asked Jerome if Firewise money might be available for a greenhouse to grow plants for restoration work in the burned areas. Firewise funds couldn’t be used for that purpose, but out of that contact came interest in making Dayville a Firewise community.
“The risk assessment was conducted in spring 2017. The next step is to pull together the community,” Jerome said. “It’s all community driven.”
Interest in John Day grew following a tense fire season in 2013, Jerome said. A fire above Hillcrest Road coincided with the Grouse Mountain Fire near Mt. Vernon. Some time later, a fire burned above the Charolais Heights neighborhood, followed by more lightning strikes and strong winds.
“What saved the situation was rain,” Jerome said.
John Day could be divided by neighborhoods into separate Firewise communities, or the entire city could establish a single Firewise community, Jerome said. The latter is more practical, “but it depends upon what the people want to do,” she said.
The Grant County Community Wildfire Protection Plan was completed in 2005. The county was one of the first in Eastern Oregon to do so, and the plan became a model for other counties. Jerome, who has a bachelor’s degree in forestry from Oregon State University, updated the plan in 2013 and is working on the next update.
“It should be updated every five years,” she said.
Jerome was invited to give a presentation at the National Fire Protection Association’s conference at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in 2015. This year, she will give presentations at the OSU Extension’s Tree School East in Baker City and the Oregon Fire Prevention Workshop.