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Geos Institute helps communities build resilience in the face of climate change

Wildfire safety starts at home

By Annette McGee Rasch / for the Mail Tribune

wildfire townAfter such a smoke-filled summer, many are fatigued by wildfire and hope next year’s fire season will be less intense.

But fire officials and scientists say if future impacts are to be minimized, the public must take personal responsibility on their own properties, embrace common-sense rural development plans and support science-based forest policy.

“Especially in the wildland-urban interface zones, people need to become more responsible for their own survivability,” said Illinois Valley Fire District Chief Dennis Hoke. “We can’t look for the government to solve everything. People should ask themselves, ‘What would it take to create the defensible space that can spell the difference between losing or saving my home if a wildfire runs through?’ ”

The Illinois Valley Fire District, which “gets a whole lot done with very little resource,” gets out ahead of wildfires to perform “structural triage” on threatened homes. While Hoke’s firefighters “do a few things to help out,” he emphasized that the district cannot make homes fire safe if residents have not done the work themselves.

“We rate the homes,” Hoke said. “If there’s a cedar-shake roof or a wood pile and trees touching the house, or tall brush throughout, this is not a home we’ll fight to save. We’ll write it off before the fire ever gets there. Same thing goes when driveways are clogged with brush. If we cannot safely turn our apparatus around, we won’t go in. We’re not going to get stuck.”

Hoke wants homeowners to check out the National Fire Protection Association’s “Firewise” program (, which offers fire-safety tips and techniques to adapt to living with wildfire. Firewise also encourages neighbors to work together to reduce fuels throughout communities before fire season begins.

And fire seasons are getting more intense each year. The top 10 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998, and in the past three years (looking at global averages), each year’s high temperatures broke records set the previous year, according to NASA. And experts say hotter temperatures contribute to bigger hotter wildfires.

Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist with the Ashland-based Geos Institute, recently testified at a hearing on forest health in the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in Washington D.C., where Arkansas Congressman Bruce Westerman is promoting a massive logging bill in response to this year’s forest fires.

DellaSala co-wrote a peer-reviewed study that examined 1,500 wildfires over a 40-year period on 23 million acres of forestland in 11 western states.

“What we found was that logging actually increased fire intensity,” he said. “Lands that had been logged burned the hottest.”

“We’ve entered a new fire-climate era,” DellaSala said. “And we just cannot log our way out of an increase in fires related to climate change and human activity. This means we must prepare for more fire activity.”

Both DellaSala and Hoke said support is needed for legislation that provides homeowners with assistance in creating defensible space. They also pointed out that counties should support “smarter growth ordinances, because we are seeing unprecedented urban sprawl” into high-risk areas.

“We don’t build on top of volcanoes, so why are we building in fire-sheds?” DellaSala asks. “Sooner or later it’s going to blow.”

“Fall, winter and spring are the seasons to do fuels reduction on your property and landscape,” said Oregon Department of Forestry public information officer Melissa Cano. “This is the most important way that we can give our homes a fighting chance against wildfires in 2018. Now is the time to clear the flammable material around your home to help your property survive a future wildfire and give firefighters a safe area in which they can work to protect your home.”

“Keep in mind that once underway, a fire follows the fuel, whether it is trees or houses, so it’s critical to minimize human-caused fires and not add to the natural threat,” Hoke said. “That’s why we need the tree thinning close to homes.”

In 2017, the Southwest Oregon District has had 321 fires (compared to 198 fires in 2016). Of these, 102 were lightening-started, while 219 were deemed human-caused, according to Cano. Nationwide, 84 percent of all forest fires are caused by human activity, DellaSala said.

— Annette McGee Rasch is a freelance writer living in Cave Junction. Reach her at


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