Clackamas Fire on front lines of education ahead of wildfire season
As reports of drought conditions persist across much of the western United States, the trauma of last year's wildfire season remains fresh on the minds of Oregonians.
Perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than in Clackamas County, where residents both rural and urban understand how the course of a fire and evacuation levels can change in a moment's notice, threatening personal safety, property and way of life.
Clackamas County is somewhat of a perfect microcosm for the larger state of Oregon. It's a place where urban, rural and wildland are equally abundant, as are the people and ideas that have played out in Oregon's political landscape over the fight to protect both the forests and the rights of those whose livelihoods depend on their rich natural resources.
But as Clackamas County and the state of Oregon begin preparing for what could be another historic wildfire season, the men and women who stand on the front lines of these destructive events are preaching a message of individual and community preparedness.
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Clackamas Fire District No. 1 is informing residents about what they can be doing to prepare their property and homes in the event of a fire.
"As we look back on 2020 there are certainly some huge lessons learned from that event, how we respond to that and the time we take to prepare," said Brandon Paxton, Clackamas Fire battalion chief and public information officer. "In 2021, we've already seen weather conditions change. We had a 40-acre fire (in April) where we deployed multiple units and had evacuations I can't ever remember doing."
Paxton said the agency is keeping a close eye on weather, three variables in particular. Those include increased east winds, forecasted elevated temperatures and relative humidity. Bringing those three factors together creates a huge potential for a wildfire event.
"Getting good intel from the beginning is so important so then we can be updating our crews and making sure we're ready," Paxton said. "We're increasing training to prepare for this. We're well equipped and have over the past couple years purchased additional apparatus that are wildland-urban interface specific, which carry a larger amount of water, have a higher wheel clearance and are four-by-four."
'Ready, set, go'
According to Paxton, one of the most important things that people can do ahead of this season is familiarize themselves with the evacuation levels — "Ready, Set, Go!"
• Level one: Be ready to leave at a minute's notice. Be aware of the fire danger conditions that exist and have your bags packed.
• Level two: Your bag is not only packed, but it's in the car and ready for you and your family to drive away at any second. That also means you've packed your medications, cell phone chargers, clothes, anything your family would need to sustain itself away from home for a few days.
• Level three: Go right now.
"So that's that time where we don't have, you know, an hour to think about this," Paxton said. "This means you need to go now. As we go to evacuations, we understand that evacuating people from their residences and places of business is stressful. We understand that. Our firefighters live in the community as well, so we don't take that lightly."
Clackamas Fire also is reaching out to communities that abut forests and wildland to further educate folks about defensible space around their homes and the removal of "ladder fuels" — timber debris that could potentially feed a fire — from their property.
There are two zones, Paxton said.
The first zone is from zero to 30 feet around a home. Within that zone, people should remove all dead plants, trim tree branches to keep them at a minimum of 10 feet from one another and remove any vegetation under structures like decks that could catch fire.
The second zone is from 30 to 100 feet around a home. In this zone, homeowners should cut or mow grass to a maximum height of 4 inches, create horizontal space between trees and shrubs, as well as vertical space between those plants and their grass.
Clackamas County residents also are encouraged to download a PDF of their own personal wildfire action plan at clackamasfire.com that can help them remember all of this information when the time comes. It includes space to fill in one's own personal emergency contacts and animal shelter information, for those who own livestock that must be moved.
Clackamas Fire also is encouraging all district residents to sign up for Clackamas County Public Alerts through the county's emergency management division at the county's website, clackamas.us. People can register everyone in their household to receive alerts on their cell phone when an emergency has been declared and evacuations are ordered.
In the coming months, Clackamas Fire will assist in providing small grants to homeowners who need help creating defensible space or removing debris from their property. The agency also will lease wood chippers to cut down on backyard burning.
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