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May is Wildfire Awareness Month, and firefighters want public to be prepared for another potentially devastating year

PMG PHOTO: SAM STITES - Brandon Paxton is a Clackamas Fire battalion chief and public information officer.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.

Clackamas Fire District #1 is taking the opportunity during Wildfire Awareness Month throughout May to inform residents throughout the county 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 a couple weeks ago where we deployed multiple units and had evacuations I can't ever remember doing."

Paxton said that 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."

According to Paxton, one of the most important things that Clackamas County residents, business and other community members can do ahead of this season is familiarize themselves with the evacuation levels — "Ready, Set, Go!"

Level one meaning, 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 means 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 means 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."

Paxton said that Clackamas Fire is also reaching out to communities that interface with the 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. COURTESY OF CLACKAMAS FIRE - Defensible space is critical to widlfire preparedness as a property owner in areas that interface with forests and wildland.

There are two zones of defensible space that Clackamas Fire is hoping residents begin to think critically about and strategize as they clean up their property from last year's fires, ice and wind storms.

The first zone is from 0-30 feet around your home in which you should remove all dead plants, trim tree branches to keep them at a minimum of 10 feet from each other and remove any vegetation under structures like decks that could catch fire.

The second zone is from 30-100 feet around your 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 are also encouraged to download a PDF of their own personal wildfire action plan at that can help you remember all of this information when the time comes. It includes space to fill in your own personal emergency contacts and animal shelter information if you own livestock that needs to be moved so that everything is ready at a moment's notice.

Clackamas Fire is also encouraging all district residents to sign up for Clackamas County Public Alerts through the county's emergency management division. You can register everyone in your household to receive alerts on their cell phone when an emergency has been declared and evacuations are ordered.

Paxton also said that in the coming months Clackamas Fire will be helping provide small grants to homeowners who are looking for help in creating defensible space or removing debris from their property. The agency will also be helping to lease wood chippers to cut down on backyard burning as the fire season's start date slowly creeps earlier on the calendar.

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