Although it’s been a while since City Club held a forum on the topic of wildfire, we all know the thought is never far from our awareness. Some of the worst wildfires in history occurred last year all along the US west coast, causing loss of homes, lives, flora, and fauna.
Our March forum will focus the discussion on the potential adoption of county and city codes to require fire mitigation measures in our building and landscaping practices. The county is currently considering this very question as are some cities within the county. A downside to stricter code is the possibility of increased home costs in an area that is already struggling with affordable housing. While this is very relevant, there has been little discussion about the longer-term socio-economic challenges of post-fire recovery if fire mitigation measures are not adopted.
Ben Gordon: Executive Director, Central Oregon LandWatch
- Nick Lelack: AICP Director, Deschutes County Community Development
- Doug Green: Bend Fire and Rescue
- Hayley Riach: Emergency Services Coordinator – Disaster Recovery, Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office
Read the Deschutes County’s Wildfire Mitigation Advisory Committee final report HERE.
You never know when disaster may strike; no one expects it’s going to happen to them.
Recovery from wildfires is complex, impacting; housing, businesses, infrastructure systems, social services and education, natural and cultural resources, health services and to put it simply, impacts the overall structure of the community.
“I’m stunned at how hard it all is. I miss my home and sanctuary every day, every holiday, every milestone. I miss all the little items tied to memories. I wish I had the house fully insured and that I’d updated it after the kitchen remodel.”
~Holiday Farm Survivor
Panelist, Hayley Riach, (Emergency Services Coordinator – Disaster Recovery, Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office) presented not only the physical impacts of disaster but discussed the emotional traumas the victims have to deal with and the recovery rate of that alone is a long, tiring ordeal.
Historically, the most vulnerable people in our communities are the most impacted by wildfire. We typically see low-income neighborhoods, older adults, communities of color, homeless, people diagnosed with mental illnesses, and people whose first language is not English hit hardest by wildfire devastation.
Riach stressed that we need to prepare for disasters to reduce human suffering. Collective action to prepare and absorb these disasters so we can build back better. If we put the work in now, Central Oregon can have a coordinated recovery effort and plan in place.
All of the panelists touched on the cost to build and maintain fire mitigation will cost residents. It’s important to note that each dollar invested in disaster preparedness saves seven dollars in recovery. It may be an added cost upfront on building or a little more for your insurance premium, but the safety of your family and our community are at stake.
When wildfire hits, infrastructure and communications go down, housing becomes limited and rents go up. The economy is affected on a myriad of levels. If something were to happen to a health clinic or hospital, that takes years to recover and rebuild. It would be detrimental to our community in Central Oregon. It is imperative we all do our part to prevent wildfires from devastating our neighborhoods.
Panelist Nick Lelack (AICP Director, Deschutes County Community Development) pointed out that the largest fires in Deschutes county happened in the last decade. Lelack showed the county fire map and highlighted that our entire county is a wildfire hazard zone. This is serious and residents need to prepare and do their part to keep our community safe.
Statewide fire-resistant building codes were adopted in 2019 to increase construction standards for wildfire hazard mitigation (R327 – Details here). Lelack pointed out that this is a unique code, in that, the State legislature gave each local jurisdiction the option to adopt the codes or not.
Deschutes County has not yet adopted the R327 codes, but is seriously considering it, as wildfires are a real concern for Central Oregon.
If the county commissioners do adopt the R327 fire mitigation codes, they can not adjust or change the policy to fit local community needs. This is an issue community planners are addressing. Although the code cannot be changed, there are potentially waivers that may be applied making it easier for us to adopt in Deschutes County.
The county is discussing how they can put the new fire mitigation codes into effect and allow for waivers to be applied to fit our needs here in our communities. The estimated cost of compliance is projected at $0-$6,000 or more.
R327 wildfire hazard mitigation requirements of fire-resistant materials and requirements apply to:
- Exterior walls
- Overhanging projections
- Glazing in windows,skylights and doors
- Soffit and fascia
Defensible Space is a Priority
Deschutes County fire code currently has defensible space standards for properties in place. Read more here
There are over 40 Firewise communities working hard to create that defensible space around our Central Oregon. Costing roughly $600- $3,000 per acre or $100 to $125 per acre depending on the property. This is a property-specific expense, not a a-one-size-fits-all estimate.
“Wildfires are bigger, burning longer, destroying more property and killing more people than ever before. Once we accept that, we can plan for it,” stated panelist Doug Green: Bend Fire and Rescue
There are hundreds of fires that start each year located in and around Bend that have all had the potential to grow out of control. The fire department has done a great job keeping those fires under control.
Green stressed the point that this is not a wildfire problem, it’s a home ignition problem.
We can solve this problem by reducing home and landscape ignitability. Homes burn down because they are built with and surrounded by flammable material and when an ember lands on a home, it sets it up in a blaze, oftentimes leaving the trees and landscaping unburned, simply put, your home is a tinderbox.
Defensible space and mindful building materials are solutions. We need to build our communities to not be flammable.
Once a wildfire starts, there’s not much that can be done once an inferno is created. The Bend fire department does not have the resources to do much if dozens of homes are set ablaze, all they can do is help evacuate at that time.
The City of Bend is working with the wildfire resilience steering committee which is tasked with developing wildfire mitigation recommendations that will be presented to the Bend City Council later this year.
As Central Oregon continues to grow, we need to grow in a smart and sustainable way. Central Oregon needs to build in a way that gives homes and communities the best chance of surviving a wildfire.
Also discussed on the panel was the WUI code. A wildland-urban interface (WUI) code is specifically designed to mitigate the risks from wildfire to life and property. Including structure density and location, the number of structures allowed in areas at risk from wildfire, plus setbacks (distance between structures and distance between other features such as slopes).
When we got to the Q&A one hot topic was brought up, who is responsible for developing the evacuation plan in case of a fire?
Doug Green with Bend Fire responded that Deschutes County Sheriff’s department is leading the planning for all disaster evacuations. And the best thing you can do is sign up for Deschutes County alerts to be prepared and informed in case of an emergency.
How can you be best prepared for wildfire?
- Build your defensible space – Learn more here
- Check your homeowner’s insurance – THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT! Make sure you’re covered for Code Upgrades and update your replacement values. Good coverage may only be a few dollars more a month and could save you big time if/when disaster hits.
- Sign up for Deschutes County alerts. – Learn more here
- Have a plan for your backup power in case our grid is hit by fire.
- Know your neighbors and be prepared to help! Neighbors are the real first responders, and that could be you.
- Prepare a go-bag and 40-week kit
- Practice your family plan.