Program offers free fire hazard removal to homeowners

If you’ve properly prepared for a forest fire, it may just slip around your home and leave it unharmed.

That’s the aim behind an Ore-gon Department of Forestry program that uses federal forest safety net funding through Linn County. The program is helping make sure that happens around area homes this summer by getting rid of excess fuels.

For the past three years, Lee Vaughn, a National Fire Plan administrator with the ODF for the past five years and former Sweet Home unit forester, has been conducting surveys of fire hazards around homes in the interface between rural homes and the forest.

This year, the ODF is doing something about it at no cost to homeowners who want the work by removing the fuels, trimming back trees and undergrowth and making the homes safer with a 10-person fuels-reduction crew the department has hired for the summer.

Money for the crew has come from safety net Title III funds, disbursed through Linn County, Vaughn said. “We proposed hiring a 10-person fuels reduction crew to work around homes at risk to wildfire noted in the Linn County Wildfire Protection Plan adopted in February 2008.”

In March the Linn County commissioners approved this proposal and budgeted the money, Vaughn said.

The crew also trained at the annual Fire School in Sweet Home in June to supplement the existing summer wildland fire fighting force.

The crew is made up mostly of young adults new to the work force, Vaughn said.

“They are trained in the use of various hand tools and power tools, such as chain saws and power tree pruners. They received classroom and field training to national standards of Fire Fighter II.”

The crew is budgeted for employment from June 15 to Sept. 15, working five days a week, eight hours a day with no overtime,

Vaughn said. When dispatched to a wildland fire in Linn County or a neighboring county, the firefighters are on the fire’s payroll and eligible for overtime. This setup will extend the crew’s budgeted Title III funds past the middle of September.

Most members of the crew are in their late teens, supervised by Randy Carlson, a longtime veteran of the Sweet Home Unit firefighting crew, Vaughn said. Carlson has experience as a firefighter and in fuels reduction.

Probably three members have actually been on a fire, Carlson said.

Last week, the crew was busy around a couple of homes off Berlin Road between Sweet Home and Lebanon.

Wednesday afternoon, the workers were busy clearing brush away from the dirt access road to make room for fire trucks,

Carlson said. Afterward, they would cut a buffer around the rural home and prune the trees.

“If they do it right, it (the house) will be protected on its own,” Carlson said. A fire could go through the area, but the low intensity of the fire won’t do anything to the home.

The ODF identified homes for fuel reduction using the Wildfire Risk Assessment Survey conducted in Linn County by ODF employees over a three-year period.

When doing the surveys, Vaughn said, he has looked at likely ignition sources and what’s at the most risk of igniting around a home.

The fire will stay low instead of climbing into the crowns of the trees, and organic flammable materials won’t be available within 30 feet of the home, he said. Grass lawns are acceptable. The flames on a cut lawn remain low without any “ladder” fuels to climb.

Much of what the crew is doing is removing the rungs from the ladder, he said.

Usually, one of the highest dangers is embers landing in a gutter and igniting leaves that need to be cleaned out, he said.

Though gutters are commonly cleaned in the fall to clear them for rainwater, cleaning them in the spring helps prevent fires.

Embers can also get into other little spaces and start fires.

The response to the crew has been all positive, Carlson said. “This is a real satisfying job for me and the crew.”

The ODF designated more than 750 homes as high risk to wildfire, with wildland fuels within 30 feet of the home, Vaughn said. The ODF sent letters to the owners of these homes.

“Homeowners are asked to contact us if they are interested in having someone from our agency visit and recommend fuel

treatments around their home,” he said. “We have had over 140 responses so far. It is up to the owner’s discretion if they want to follow those recommendations or have the crew come in and do the fuel treatments for them at no charge.”

The priority is high risk structures, however the ODF also will schedule work around homes at lower risk factors if a requested visit shows a need, he said.

Vaughn may be contacted at the ODF Sweet Home Unit, 367-6108.