Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

Some residents in the Baker and Bowen valley areas might see a fire engine rolling up their driveway this spring or early summer.

But the mission won't be an emergency call.

A project started last year by local fire agencies needs to be completed.

Important data-gathering by the Baker Rural and Greater Bowen Valley fire protection districts that was halted by last year's record-setting wildfires will continue through early July.

The data, which include the location of potentially dangerous items such as propane tanks, will help firefighters more successfully, and safely, protect homes in the two fire districts.

Crews from the districts visited 860 homes last year in an effort to computerize pre planning fire information about the homes and properties in an effort to enhance future firefighting efforts.

Those data will be accessible via a computer program used on a smartphone or tablet by firefighters en route to a home to help prepare them for what to expect.

"It's the wave of the future," said Dan Weitz, chief of the Baker Rural district. "It gives us a huge advantage in being efficient."

Photos of the properties will also be taken, allowing responding fire crews to easily identify where they are going via their phone or tablet.

Last year's goal of assessing 1,200 homes was cut short by the onslaught of wildfires that occurred in August.

Weitz said fire crews hope to visit about 340 more properties this year to gather data. Participation is voluntary for homeowners.

"The intent is helping us to help them," Weitz said. "We can sure use the help of the homeowners. They know their property the best."

Dangerous items or situations on the property will be recorded to alert firefighters of hazards they might encounter when defending the property from fire.

Knowing the location of propane tanks, inaccessible driveways, gates and other potential hazards will be an invaluable resource for firefighters arriving at the scene.

Knowing whether a structure has a metal or wood shingle roof or siding, or if there is poor defensible space around the home, will greatly enhance attack strategies for fire crews, said Baker County Emergency Services Fire Director Gary Timm.

"It's tools for firefighters," he said.

The information will be available to rural district firefighters, but it also can be shared with crews from other agencies, such as the Oregon Department of Forestry, Forest Service and BLM who might be called in to fight a fire, Weitz said.

He said the program is an effective tool when fighting blazes in what's known as the "wildland-urban interface" - basically, when people live in or near the forest - which can expose fire crews and residents to particular threats that don't exist in uninhabited areas.

A feature of the program that Weitz said is particularly valuable is the ability to draw a line right on a tablet that indicates where a retardant drop needs to be made by an air tanker in these areas. The information is transmitted to the pilot.

"In a matter of seconds, they can have a map," Weitz said. "Time is of the essence."

Weitz said the program is also an effective tool to help and guide other emergency personnel in the event of other natural disasters such as a flood or earthquake.

Baker City Fire Department Chief Mark John said the city is going to begin implementing the program in areas near the outskirts of town where there are wildland-urban interface areas.

"It allows us to preplan in those areas that will be vulnerable to wildfires," John said.

See more in the May 2, 2016, issue of the Baker CIty Herald.

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