With fire season arriving early due to drought and a record-setting heatwave, some Baker County property owners are working with their neighbors to reduce the wildfire risk on their properties.
One group has taken the extra steps of achieving Firewise Community status through the National Fire Protection Association.
Property owners in the East Eagle Creek area, in the densely forested Wallowa Mountains about 18 air miles north of Richland, have created a Firewise Community. Known as Eagleton, it’s the second such designation in Baker County.
The first, in the Pine Creek/Spring Creek area northwest of Baker City, was formed in 2020.
The Eagleton Firewise Community had its second meeting Friday, June 25, during which property owners discussed the project and ways to protect their mountain cabins during what could be a dangerous fire season.
Brandi Sangster, who owns property in the area, said owners had been talking about becoming a Firewise Community for a few years. They decided to pursue the official designation during the COVID-19 pandemic, when some people had more time to devote to the effort.
“After we had a fire back in 2015, everybody saw what can happen,” Sangster said. “East Eagle has one way in and one way out and that’s why it’s kind of dangerous.”
Sangster was referring to the Eagle Complex fire, which burned about 12,700 acres in the Eagle Creek canyon in August 2015.
Following the devastating fires during Labor Day weekend 2020 in western and southern Oregon, which destroyed more than 4,000 homes and killed 11 people, more residents, especially those who live in or own property in the “wildland-urban interface” where homes are in or near forests, are interested in protecting their property.
Gary Timm, deputy director of Baker County Emergency Management, has been talking with landowners across the county about the risks. Timm also helps property owners work through the Firewise Community process if they’re interested.
“It really depends on the location and if they’ve got some people willing to take the steps,” Timm said. “So many people wear different hats; it’s hard to find the time.”
Timm met with property owners in the East Eagle Creek area for the first time in September 2020, the same month property owners in the Spring Creek Firewise Community gathered for a barbecue to celebrate their first-in-the-county designation.
Timm said he expected five or six East Eagle Creek property owners to attend the initial meeting.
He was greeted by nearly 30.
“Most people understand the risks, especially in the wildland-urban interface settings where the fires are so bad,” Timm said. “They don’t want to be part of the problem. They want to work together and be part of the solution.”
Among the steps property owners need to make their structures more fire-defensible are removing pine needles from gutters, trimming grass and shrubs, storing firewood away from structures and maintaining a clear driveway so fire trucks have easy access.
Sometimes it is difficult for older residents to do this type of laborious work, and that’s when neighbors come together to see what they can do to help, Sangster said.
“We’re all good neighbors and friends up there, anyway,” Sangster said. “If you need help, there are several of us who are young and spry who can help out.”