County, state team up to reduce wildfire danger in urban fringe

On the forested slopes of Vineyard Mountain, it can be tough to see the dangers for the trees.

“You live in your house and you kind of ignore Mother Nature around you,” said Joe Heaney, a longtime resident of the wooded neighborhood just north of Corvallis.

But this winter’s storms, which brought down trees and triggered landslides throughout the area, provided a wakeup call for anyone who may have forgotten that rural living has its hazards.

“It kind of reminds you that Mother Nature is still working around you,” Heaney said.

It reminded Heaney that he needed to get his property ready for fire season, so he got busy trimming back the trees around his house. About two dozen of his neighbors — all members of the Vineyard Mountain Special Road District — did the same, hauling branches and other potentially flammable yard debris down the hill to a storage area just off Sulphur Springs Road.

On Thursday, an inmate work crew from the Benton County Jail fed the limbs and brush into a mechanical chipper for disposal.

Benton County provides the chipping service as part of a coordinated effort with the Oregon Department of Forestry and the Oregon State University Extension Service to reduce the chance of property damage in the wildland-urban interface — the rural neighborhoods where the woods meet the suburbs and the threat of wildfire is high.

“We explain to people that yes, it does happen, even in this climate, and it really can happen here,” said Chris Bentley, the coordinator of Benton County’s community wildfire protection plan.

The plan is built around the notion of getting rural property owners to create a defensible space around their homes, reducing the amount of potential fuel sources so fire will not be able to spread easily. That means keeping lawns trimmed and watered, clearing out brush, removing overhanging trees and pruning back low-hanging limbs.

“It’s been proven over and over that it works,” Bentley said.

This year’s chipping program started May 1 and will continue through June 1. So far, nine community chipping days have been scheduled.

The Oregon Department of Forestry offers free fire safety evaluations for rural property owners and works with road districts, homeowners associations and other groups to get whole neighborhoods working to create defensible space.

“ODF identifies those high-risk neighborhoods and tries to make contact,” said Tom O’Connor, a forest officer with the department’s West Oregon District.

“The community has to want to get involved.”

Some financial assistance is available, as well as educational materials, training sessions and free chipping. Money for the programs comes from Title III funds, payments to timber-dependent counties to replace lost revenue from declining logging operations on federal lands.

Depending on weather conditions, fire season in Western Oregon usually starts around July 1 and continues until early October or so, when the fall rains begin. For rural homeowners, O’Connor said, the key is to reduce the fuel loads on their property well before the season arrives.

“What we’re trying to tell people is that you as a landowner need to do something beforehand,” he said.

Contact Bennett Hall at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.

 

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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