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Early fire season averted, but wet weather means more flash fuels

According to Jon Gehrig, wildfire coordinator for Hood River Fire and EMS, the unexpectedly heavy rains this last week are putting the fire season back to normal after an early drying spell that had threatened to advance the burn ban date.

“No matter how you look at it, this is a lot of rain ... For fire, this means that, at least in the short to mid-term, fire danger should be at normal levels.”

But the return to normal fire season dates shouldn’t be a reason for homeowners to relax.

“The rain won’t help for long,” said Chief Jim Appleton of Mosier Fire Department. “There has been a lot of grass growth since it began and I just see the rains as adding fuel for later.”

“The past couple months of dry weather had cut the normal growing season short. The new rains will most likely bring a second growth of fine fuels that, once they become dry, increase the chance of a fire start from even a small firebrand,” said Gehrig.

According to Adam Barnes of the Oregon Department of Forestry, the rains put the Valley more or less back on track to normal. ODF intends to apply the burn ban July 1, as usual.

“Even after the rain, I think that we can still characterize this year as having an above-average risk for wildfire,” said Gehrig. “That being said, homeowners should remain vigilant in their efforts to mitigate the hazards and risks near and around their home.”

“The pattern over the last few years has been a wet spring and then a round of thunderstorms in June and July,” said Appleton. Thunderstorms bring lightening, an ever-present threat for wildfire ignition.

Gehrig emphatically points out that “prevention is more effective than suppression.”

For city and county residents alike, HRFD recommends clearing an area of at least 30 feet around their home if flat, and 100 feet if near a slope.

This means clearing limbs away from the roof and deck of the home, keeping propane tanks, woodpiles, and other fuels uphill and away from homes, and removing pine needles and other debris from the roof/gutters.

“We’re leaning away from the ‘lean, mean, and green’ mantra of past, and suggesting that green does not necessarily mean ‘fire

resistant,’” said Gehrig. “Blackberries and many hedges for example, are highly volatile even though they are green. They pose a serious hazard. There are many other plants that are suited to grow here and are ‘fire

resistant.’”

A complete list of fire resistant plants can be found at www.firefree.org but some easily available choices include spirea, rhododendron, boxwood, dogwood, ponderosa pines and quaking aspen.

HRF is providing free copies of the list (while they last) that are available at local fire stations, Good News Gardening, and through the OSU Master Gardeners.

Knowing your landscaping is important but Gehrig suggests that knowing your neighbors is equally critical.

“We are suggesting that residents begin a dialog with their neighbors — even if your home is clear, it is only as safe as that of your neighbor.”

“Even with the rain we face what could be a serious fire season, especially because this is a budget year. I believe the number one goal should be to find ways to mitigate hazards, as one teaspoon of prevention is worth a gallon of suppression,” he said.

Hood River Fire and EMS as well as County Departments will continue to train and prepare as usual. Gehrig also notes that the need for fire prevention activities is not specific to those living on the edge of wildland.

“One of the biggest misconceptions in Hood River is that residents within the City limits are immune to wildfires,” he said.

“Many places are surrounded by volatile fuels — think along the I-84 corridor or Frankton Road where we had the fire a few years ago. The Sieverkropp development and East Hazel Drive abut Indian Creek drainage, with high foot traffic, nearby BPA main lines, and an extremely heavy fuel load.”

The combination of heavy fuels and high winds creates a recipe for disaster no matter where the city limit line lies.

“Part of my mission this year is to create an awareness and education program to ensure that all county residents are informed and have sources of information available to them,” said Gehrig.

“Currently, we are in dialog with several neighborhoods trying to find a way to mitigate hazards on public property — owned by the city and ODOT — that abuts their homes. We are also sending out fliers to areas that we have identified as being at high risk, encouraging residents to be aware of the dangers that they face.” Residents are encouraged to contact the Wildfire Prevention Team at firemarshal@ hoodriverfire.com.

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