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Wildfire preparations begin at home

Jamie Lusch/Mail Tribune | The Almeda fire moves toward Medford in September 2020.

Dry ground and high temperatures are as good as a groundhog’s shadow for predictions, and the Oregon Department of Forestry is predicting this year’s wildfire season will likely be early and it could be another bad year.

But there are things individual Oregonians can do to prepare for the coming fires and to potentially prevent them.

Recent spring snowstorms and rain have improved conditions slightly, but aren’t likely to be enough. Temperatures overall have been higher than average while snowpack and rainfall are still too little, creating ideal conditions for natural and economic disasters, according to Gov. Kate Brown’s April 7 declaration of drought for Jackson, Gilliam and Harney counties. More than half of Oregon’s land area has so far received drought declarations for 2022.

Defensible space is vital to protect a home from wildfire. Showers of embers from nearby burning plants and trees are often what light up a house, long before the flame wall of a wildfire reaches it. Clearing potential fuels around a house can prevent those ember showers from catching.

The list of fuels is long. Mulch or bark, bushes and other plants near the house, firewood piles, pine needles, dead leaves in gutters, and tall grass are all fire fuel.

“One approach we want folks to take with defensive space, tackle it one thing at a time,” said John Hendricks, public affairs specialist for the Oregon State Fire Marshal.

Hendricks said it can be easiest to look at the house from the gutters, the sides of the house, and under the porch first, then to work outward until the house has a clear defensible space around it.

It’s also important to consider “ladder fuels,” vegetation under trees that could reach into higher branches and spread a fire from the ground into the tree’s canopy.

The OSFM urges Oregonians not to stop at their own homes but to create communities of defensible space. If entire neighborhoods create defensible space as a group, they increase every home’s chance of resistance to fire and potentially make the season’s work easier for firefighters.

Once a home is prepared, it’s important to prepare personally. Jackson County residents can sign up for emergency alerts at https://member.everbridge.net/1332612387832182/new. Have an evacuation plan and a grab bag with enough food, water, toiletries and other supplies for at least three days. Oregonians should also expect possible power outages in the coming season.

Pacific Power has announced it could proactively shut off power in the event of extreme wildfire conditions. Be sure your power company has your contact information to stay informed.

Some Oregonians have begun using portable generators to respond to these conditions. Many people don’t realize these units expel carbon dioxide at potentially lethal levels. The Portable Generator Manufacturers' Association has a new website, takeyourgeneratoroutside.com, with information on how to run these machines safely.

Preparing for wildfires is only half the equation. The Oregon Department of Forestry continues Smokey Bear’s long campaign in asking people to take responsibility to keep Oregon green.

“Fire prevention is something that all Oregonians should have at the forefront of their mind. Humans cause the majority of Oregon’s fires, but they can also prevent them,” Mike Shaw, ODF’s Fire Protection Division chief, said in a press release.

ODF says that on average 70% of Oregon’s wildfires are caused by people, and escaped debris burns are the number one cause. Consider chipping, composting or taking debris to a drop-off zone, such as Rogue Disposal or Recology, rather than burning.

If material must be burned, it’s imperative to burn carefully. Call the Jackson County Health and Human Services burn hotline at 541-776-7007 before burning. The number leads to an automated yes or no, updated daily, saying whether conditions are safe for burning.

Clear a 10-foot area around a burn pile and keep the pile small. Never use gasoline, and always have water or other fire tools nearby to keep the fire from getting out of control. Losing control of a debris burn could lead to the next wildfire — and ODF warns that people who lose control of their burn piles could be on the hook for paying for the suppression of the fire and the damage to their neighbors’ homes.

To put out a fire, always pour water on the coals, stir and pour water again. Keep Oregon Green reminds Oregonians if a fire is too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave unattended.

Oregonians are urged to be just as cautious when enjoying the state’s natural beauty at campsites and parks. Campfires must not only be carefully extinguished but carefully built and lit only when conditions are safe.

Wildfires can also be started by tools such as lawnmowers, weed whackers, chain saws and feller bunchers. All can set off stray sparks and start fires when drought leaves vegetation dry. Combines and tractors can do the same, and so can trucks with dangling metal chains.

Check the Keep Oregon Green website to stay abreast of current conditions, keeporegongreen.org/current-conditions/.

To learn more about wildfire preparedness, the Oregon State Fire Marshal is hosting weekly webinars throughout the month of May. The next two live webinars are:

— Noon to 1 p.m., Thursday, May 19, “Be Ready, Be Set, GO!: Oregon's evacuation levels and what they mean;”

— Noon to 1 p.m., Tuesday, May 24, “Fire-resistant plants: What are they?”

Additional materials are available from Oregon State University, at https://extension.oregonstate.edu/forests/fire/wildfire-strikes.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.