La Pine wildfires: What went right offers lessons

Reducing wildfire fuels in area had positive impact

La PINE, Ore. - Saturday's La Pine-area wildfires "provided a frightening, yet positive example of why hazardous fuels reduction is so important to improving the fire resilience of our landscapes and protecting our communities," a Project Wildfire representative said Sunday.

The rest of her news release: 

The Burgess Road Fire was ignited Saturday when high winds blew trees onto power lines, resulting in multiple fire starts in an area east of Huntington Road and south of Burgess Road. 

While firefighters are still mopping up, the success of the operation is already being observed by fire management on scene.

"Conditions are especially dry for this time of year, increasing the potential for fires to spread quickly," notes Mike Supkis, La Pine fire chief and Burgess Road Fire incident commander. 

"Despite the already extreme conditions, however, we are seeing higher levels of suppression success, thanks to the fuels treatment efforts in this area over the past few years," Supkis added.

The 168-acre Burgess Road Fire encompasses a section of land owned by Deschutes County known as the New Neighborhood. 

"This 515-acre parcel was thick with overgrown and dead bitterbrush intermixed with lodgepole pine," explained Katie Lighthall, program Ddrector for Project Wildfire. 

"With the help of National Fire Plan funding in 2005, contractors mowed the overgrown brush on this parcel and created space between the trees, reducing the potential for tree-to-tree ignition in the event of a fire," Lighthall added.

"Fires are a natural occurrence here in Central Oregon, so we must take responsibility for our property to mitigate our potential losses and those of our neighbors," Lighthall said.

In keeping with that responsibility, Deschutes County and Project Wildfire returned to the New Neighborhood in 2009 under a FEMA Pre-Disaster Mitigation grant for a quick and inexpensive "maintenance mow" to provide continued fire resistance and protection for nearby residences along Huntington Road and in the Crescent Creek subdivision. 

"Fuels treatments on landscapes and defensible space projects on individual properties do not ensure that fires will not start or that evacuations will not be necessary," Lighthall said. "They do, however, greatly reduce the impact that fires will have on the landscape, and in neighborhoods adjacent to those landscapes."

"As an incident commander, my highest priority is the safety of our firefighters and that of our communities," said Supkis.  "Without the previous hazardous fuels treatments on this acreage, our firefighters could not have safely carried out their suppression operation yesterday and through the night." 

Project Wildfire is a local collaborative group focusing on one mission – preventing catastrophic losses from wildfire in Deschutes County.

The group is comprised of a 50-50 balance between public fire and land management agencies and private citizens, groups and officials who meet regularly and support mitigation efforts across the county. 

"Deschutes County is no stranger to collaboration," said Supkis. "We are extremely fortunate to have strong working relationships with neighboring fire agencies and law enforcement when an emergency situation calls for a coordinated effort."

On the Burgess Road Fire, this effective level of coordination included a smooth evacuation of nearby residences by the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office and a unified suppression response from mutual aid partners, including the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, as well as local fire departments including the Sunriver, Walker Range, Sisters, Redmond, Cloverdale, Black Butte Ranch, Jefferson County and Crescent Rural fire departments.

This type of collaboration and Project Wildfire's last decade of success point to an effort taking shape across the country, called the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.  

Under an umbrella of active collaboration, private and public agencies, entities, groups and individuals come together to address the three most prevalent challenges/goals across the landscape today:  fire resilient landscapes, effective wildfire response and fire adapted communities. 

"The three goals are interrelated, as we can see on the Burgess Road Fire," said Lighthall.  "Hazardous fuels treatments allow for safe and effective fire suppression and a chance for communities to better understand their roles and responsibilities when living in a fire prone environment such as central Oregon." 

Success stories such as these witnessed on the Burgess Road Fire provide timely and measurable demonstrations of the Cohesive Wildland Fire Strategy at work. 

For more information about Project Wildfire, visit www.projectwildfire.org.  For more information about the Cohesive Wildland Fire Strategy, visit www.forestsandrangelands.gov.

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