Colorado wildfires hold a lesson for Oregonians

About 600 homes were recently lost between the Waldo Canyon and High Park wildfires in Colorado. It raises the question in every Oregon homeowner's mind: Could it happen here?

Absolutely. We have forests, sloping terrain and dry, hot summers. In a ripe environment, wildfire is like a contagion, but you can prevent its spread to your home by creating good defensible space.

Wildfires conjure visions of menacing flames moving across the landscape. However, a wildfire poses a threat from the air as well as the ground. An airborne ember can travel a mile or more, come to rest on your roof, under your deck, or even on the broom, doormat or lawn chairs where it can smolder and catch fire. Embers landing in dry plant debris, gaps in houses' structure or unprotected vents are the major cause of burning homes.

In late August 2010, Ashland's Oak Knoll fire swept through the south side of town, destroying 11 houses. Abundant flammable vegetation in the landscaping of most of the homes in the neighborhood enabled the fire to spread quickly. Cedar shakes on some of the homes contributed to their destruction. The lesson here: Even for the urban dweller, wildfire can pose a grave threat. Wherever houses meet nature, there is risk. A wildfire follows fuel, whether a home is close to a forest, dense landscaping vegetation or an overgrown field.

How would you and your neighbors fare in the face of a wildfire? The answer is critical, because in a large fire, there may not be enough firefighters to protect every home because of a lack of resources and demands elsewhere. Insurance cannot replace the irreplaceable.

Creating and maintaining defensible space can be as simple as cleaning up your property. It ranges from inexpensive, weekend yard work around your home to more comprehensive actions taken on a community scale. Within a minimum of 30 feet of the home, keep your lawn green, trim and space the shrubs, and prune low tree branches to lessen the chances of a ground fire reaching the house. Whether you do at least two or all of the steps recommended by fire prevention experts, you will be reducing the risk to your family and your property. The more people who clean up their property, the less likely a fire will spread. Cooperation and shared responsibility among homeowners are essential.

When the next Oregon wildfire strikes, I hope to read a different kind of newspaper headline: "Flame front passed; entire community emerged unscathed." There are powerful lessons to be learned from the stories of community loss post-fire, but imagine what we can learn from the homes and communities that survive. It is possible to have minimal structural losses in our state, even in busy fire years. It's an ambitious goal, but we dream big here in Oregon.

Defensible space information can be obtained from the Oregon Department of Forestry, State Fire Marshal's Office and local fire departments. Excellent sources exist on the Web:,, and

Kristin Babbs is National Fire Plan coordinator for the Oregon Department of Forestry and state liaison for the FireWise program.

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