A grass fire in Philomath on June 16 quickly was extinguished by a combination of neighbors with buckets, and the timely arrival of a crew from Philomath Fire and Rescue.
But the fire, which was sparked by a riding mower blade hitting a rock, is a reminder of how easily fires can start in the drier months of the year — and offers a warning that homeowners need to be ready for a fire season that’s getting under way earlier than usual.
“Fires started by equipment aren’t that unusual,” said Philomath Fire Chief Tom Phelps. “What is unusual is how readily this fire spread for this time of year.”
Phelps said the fire burned along a 75-foot stretch of fence on Iris Circle.
“It’s a good example of what people should be aware of,” Phelps said.
Phelps said the fire was not near any structures, but could have crept along and spread to something more valuable.
He added that now is a good time for people to look at their properties to see what maintenance is needed to protect their homes from wildfire.
Chris Bentley, a senior planner with Benton County’s community development department, said people in the county mistakenly believe that recent showers have quenched the wildfire threat. However, rainfall totals still are about 12 inches below what is normal for this time of year, and fire season is expected to start early. What showers have fallen have enabled the growth of grasses and brush that quickly dry out to become potential tinder for a wildfire.
Bentley, who is project manager for the Community Wildfire Protection Plan in the county, said there is no question that wildfires will occur in the county.
“When it happens, we want people to be prepared,” she said.
Bentley gives presentations throughout the county in which she tells people that they can protect their houses from wildfire by developing an emergency plan, having landscaping with ignition-resistant plants, using ignition-resistant construction materials, and creating defensible spaces around their houses that are free of brush and other plant materials that can offer fuel to a fire.
“I would say that (protecting a home) is a joint responsibility between the homeowner and those folks who are there to put out the fire,” she said.
Bentley said if there ever is a massive wildfire in Benton County that threatens dozens or hundreds of homes, firefighters from local departments and the Oregon Department of Forestry might have to do “triage” and focus only on homes that can be saved.
“They are not going to spend their limited resources trying to fight something that is a lost cause,” she said. “It’s a tough reality, but if (homeowners) have taken responsibility for defensibility they’ve got a lot better chance of allowing those agencies to help them.”
Bentley said buildings with shake roofs and properties where the brush is dry and overgrown are harder to save. Cleaning the gutters, removing dead leaves, and installing metal screens over vents also can help make fire less likely to spread to a house.
She added that the Oregon Department of Forestry and Benton County perform free home site evaluations to assess fire hazards. Bentley said the evaluations are “nonpunitive” and homeowners aren’t forced to make any changes based on the results.
The county and local fire departments also have conducted an inventory of private bridges in the county because not all of those bridges can support the weight of a loaded fire truck — and these bridges often are the only access point to houses.
Bentley said the highest-risk areas are where wild land intersects with areas where people live. She added that embers from fires can spread to set homes ablaze.
“It’s a myth that it takes licking flames to burn your house. Embers are the real problem.”
To learn more about protecting your home from wildfire visit firewise.org or http://www.co.benton.or.us/cd/cwpp/protection.php.