What's Tony Thinking

From the Wallowas, 10


Doug Hellinger came by Saturday afternoon. Doug, a trim, friendly man, maybe  45 – 50, retired from the Air Force several years ago. Though a Texan, he moved with his family to nearby Joseph, Oregon. Now Doug is employed by the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF).

We had invited Doug to do a “FireWise” inspection of our property. “FireWise” is a new state program, that has federal backing, and is aimed at reducing the risk of wildfire.

Doug explained that, in the event of an encroaching wildfire, we were most at risk from wind-blown embers. “It’s like water being blasted out of a hose, except it’s burning embers driven by the wind.” For this reason, you don’t want holes in your cabin, or other nooks and crannies, where a glowing ember can get caught or settle and start your house on fire.

I asked about the 12′ stump of a tree we took down a decade ago. We left the stump because we were used to a tree trunk in that spot and because the clothesline is attached to it. But it’s a favorite of the local Pileated Woodpecker, who hammers holes into it, throwing aside chunks of wood the size of half a pencil. (Pileated Woodpecker working the stump at right)

“Holes like those?” I asked Doug, pointing to the woodpecker’s recent work. “Yep.” Later I asked Linda if she thought we needed to take the stump down. “No, but there are some other things we do need to do.”

The idea with “FireWise” is to cut to zero the amount of flammable material within a five foot border around your place. Beyond that, the next zone is the area 30′ out. You aren’t trying to eliminate everything that could burn, but just make sure the really flammable things, like an uncovered woodpile, are outside that 3o’ boundary.

So I’ve been trimming overhanging branches. I plan to spend some time tomorrow getting accumulated pine needles off the roof above the patio. That means getting up on the roof, which gets a little dicey as I get a little older — a process that shows no indication of ceasing.

The “FireWise” program is one sign of a growing awareness of the threat of wildfires. Another was evident last summer when a contractor working for the power company showed up to take the 20′ area around power poles down to bare earth. Not very attractive, but maybe a good idea. We got a pass on the pole nearest us by promising to keep it “clean and green.” No debris. Nearby trees trimmed and watered.

Against the Goliath-like wildfires in recent years in in California and Oregon, such measures seem Davidic, i.e. small and insignificant. But perhaps every little bit helps. You hope so.

This year state legislatures in Oregon and California have allocated additional funds to prevent and fight wildfires. But everyone is pretty nervous. Most of the West is in the midst of severe drought. And the temperatures are higher than normal all over the Pacific Northwest. Hot and dry is not a good combination.

Doug had with him a young man, Austin, who lives on a ranch outside of Lostine, another small Wallowa County town. Austin was learning the ropes of a FireWise inspection. He was typical for a young man in the County — lean, handsome and silent. A very firm handshake — another feature of life here — but beyond that getting him to talk was like the proverbial dentist pulling teeth. The strong, silent type is alive and well here.

In addition to the owl holes and overhanging branches, Doug drew our attention to our uncovered and exposed eves, the overhang of the roof above the cabin walls. “You may want to cover those. Embers lodge in there, and well . . .”

Everyone, including me, is on about climate change and its role in wildfires. It does play a role, for sure. As noted, our temperatures are above normal. And the hot, dry season — a.k.a. fire season — is longer on both ends. But if you talk to people in the business they will tell you climate change is only one factor, and maybe not the most important one.

Other factors? People are building homes and living in places where they never used to, often way too close to fire-prone land. If that is going to change, it may take insurance companies refusing to insure such homes or make it cost prohibitive. I suppose zoning departments could slow it down, but after people have bought a lot that’s hard.

Beyond that, we’re paying a price for good intentions. Those good intentions were to fight and repress all fire in forests. Remember “Smokey the Bear”? “Only you can prevent forest fires.” For fifty years or more the philosophy was all fire is bad fire. The result has been a build up a highly flammable material in forests. What might have been smaller fires that cleared an area of such material, without putting homes at risk,  are now mega-fires with homes and towns in their path.

Native Americans, here the Nez Perce, used controlled burns — fires — extensively to manage land. They might clear a trail with a fire or encourage the growth of particular plants that needed fire or its charred remains. In many forests the larger trees with thick outer barn can withstand fire if it doesn’t get too hot or into the forest crown. A controlled burn would leave the forest healthier. But now the fires too easily become infernos.

Doug also suggested that some shrubs close to the cabin, ones that have been there since my own grandmother’s day were a risk. “Those burn fast and hot.” I was delighted. I had never liked those mangey things. They’re gone. We’re still here. For now.



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