By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
The number of potential victims of wildfire grows every time a new building sprouts from the rural neighborhoods that ring Baker City and other towns in Baker County.
The risk, say federal officials, is real.
From the forests along Pine Creek and Washington Gulch west of Baker City, to the sagebrush range in the Panhandle and along the Snake River, homes and outbuildings border public lands that are vulnerable to fire every time a lightning storm sizzles in the summer sky.
But residents can reduce that risk, said J.R. Epps, a fire management specialist for the Bureau of Land Managements Vale District.
Helping them do so is one of the purposs of what the BLM calls its Wildland-Urban Interface Fire Protection Initiative.
The BLM and its contractor, Dynamac Corporation, will present draft plans for reducing the fire danger around several Baker County communities during a series of meetings in the next few weeks.
The first meeting, dealing with areas within about 15 miles of Baker City, is set for March 5 at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 1655 First St.
On March 6, BLM and Dynamac officials will meet at 7 p.m. at the Grange Hall in Richland to discuss the plan for the Richland-Sparta region.
On March 7, the group will travel to Halfway Elementary School to present a plan for the Halfway-Oxbow-Oxbow area. That meeting also will start at 7 p.m.
And on March 19 officials will present a draft plan for the Huntington area at that citys Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall, also at 7 p.m.
Epps urges residents to attend the meetings.
The success or failure of this program depends on the communitys input, he said. The more involvement, the better the plans.
Copies of the draft plans are available on the Internet at www.fs.fed.us/r6/w-w/fire/fs.htm Epps said the summer of 2000 inspired this effort to protect private property from wildfires.
During that season blazes destroyed dozens of homes and other structures as flames ravaged more than 6.8 million acres of public and private property in the West.
The tragedies of that summer highlighted a danger that has existed in the region for many years, and one that has been fanned by the steady exodus of residents from cities to the country, Epps said: Wildfires spreading from public land to newly settled private property.
In the fall of 2000, with the embers still fresh across the West, Congress and President Clinton approved the National Fire Plan, which allocated more than $1 billion to prevent fires and to hire more people to fight the blazes that do occur.
Epps said BLM is spending some of those dollars to study the fire danger around 16 cities in Eastern Oregon, ranging from McDermitt to Cove.
Its that zone where private homes share a border with public land that BLM refers to as the wildland-urban interface.
Although conditions in that border zone vary widely heavy timber in the Baker City area, but hardly a tree in sight near Jordan Valley the main issue is the same, Epps said.
Many of these newer homes and other structures are surrounded not by succulent grass and well-watered shrubs, but by wind- and sun-dried sagebrush and conifers.
In these places, Epps said, theres always a risk from fire.
There are two main methods to reduce that risk, he said.
The first method, and probably the most important, Epps said, is the responsibility of the private property owners.
They can help protect their land from fire by clearing it of brush and by thinning overcrowded forests, he said.
The biggest risk is the material closest to the house, Epps said. The more they can do the greater the chance of their success at surviving any large fire.
Tips for defending a rural home against wildfire are available from several sources, including the BLM, U.S. Forest Service and Oregon Department of Forestry.
Epps also recommends a web site, firewise.org. The second method involves the same type of work as the first, except on public property adjacent to vulnerable private lands, Epps said.
There, agencies such as the BLM and Forest Service can reduce the risk of fires spreading onto adjacent private land by thinning crowded forests, he said.
The Forest Service already is doing just that with its projects around Sumpter and at Stices Gulch, along the Dooley Mountain highway south of Baker City.
In addition to estimating fire risks, the draft plans Dynamac has written also discuss each communitys ability to fight fires.
The plans include topics such as the types of materials used in homes and other buildings, the proximity of those structures to combustible fuels, and the network of roads available for fire engines.
In the Baker City-area plan, for example, Dynamac found that 12 percent of the structures it surveyed were less than 40 feet from flammable wildland fuels. Another 18 percent were 40 to 100 feet away, and 60 percent of the buildings were more than 100 feet from fuels.
According to the draft plan, all the private lands surveyed (within 15 miles of Baker City) could be reached by firefighters in 20 minutes or less.
Dynamac does recommend the Baker Rural Fire Department add a 3,000-gallon water tender truck to its fleet.
Although the Fire Protection Initiative does not include money for such purchases, Epps said the plans open the way for communities to apply for federal grants.
There is money available, he said.
More information about the BLM project is available by calling Epps at 541/473-6287.