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Cover Your Grasses

New data on fire risk and a study on fuel reductions in high desert ecosystems comes as Central Oregon approaches fire season

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About 92% of properties in Bend are at risk of being affected by wildfire over the next 30 years, according to data released by the nonprofit First Street Foundation on May 16. The data is the first nationwide property-specific model for the United States, finding that over 30 million properties have at least 1% or greater chance of experiencing wildfire in the next 30 years.

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Fire risk in Bend is higher the closer a property is to the forests surrounding it on the west and south sides of town. The Awbrey Hall Fire in 1990 and the Skeleton Fire in 1996 collectively burned over 20,000 acres in and around Bend and destroyed over 50 structures.

"The lack of a property-specific, climate-adjusted wildfire risk for individual properties has severely hindered everyone from the federal government to your average American," said Matthew Eby, founder and executive director of First Street Foundation, in a press release.

First Street Foundation's model predicts Central Oregon will get at least 4% hotter over the next 30 years, paired with decreasing humidity. The tool gives property owners more information to protect themselves.

"There are things that people can do at the individual, community and landscape level," said Emily Jane Davis, associate professor at Oregon State University and interim fire program director. "We're doing a lot of emphasis on defensible space. So, what can you do to prepare the area immediately around your home so that it doesn't have flammable material?"

To make a defensible space, tall grasses, shrubs and debris should be cleared within 10 feet of a property line. The Deschutes Forest Service does this on a larger scale, thinning hazardous fuels near adjacent communities. Late snowstorms and cool temperatures pushed Central Oregon's fire season back a bit, but the area is still at an increased risk for fire as the region's ongoing drought won't end without at least two years of above average rainfall.

"For areas like Klamath, Lake, Deschutes and Crook counties, we are looking at above normal conditions starting in June. And obviously, as you move through the move through the fire season, and you get to August, larger parts of the states are incorporated in that," Davis said. "The only areas that don't look to be above normal by August would be northwestern Oregon and northeastern Oregon."

Wildfires have become larger and more frequent in more recent years. Last year's Bootleg Fire burned over 400,000 acres of southern Oregon, becoming the largest wildfire in the U.S. at the time. In 2020, thousands of people lost their homes during multiple fires on Labor Day Weekend. In Central Oregon and other sagebrush steppe ecosystems, fires are driven by climate change and invasive grass species that are more resilient to fire, increasing the likelihood of fires spreading. OSU released a study on May 16 that recommended ways to reduce fire risk in these specific ecosystems.

"It's a pretty spectacular ecosystem, but it's incredibly fragile," said Lisa Ellsworth, lead author of the study and a range ecologist in OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences, in a press release. "It was named as one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America because it is so fragile and is so impacted by climate change and by invasive species and by changing fire regimes."

Fires naturally occur in these areas every 50-100 years, and native plants tend to grow slowly and spread out. As invasive grass species move in, more land can be ignited and fires can spread, resulting in double the natural fire frequency.

"If you get a lightning strike and it hits cheatgrass, those fires can rip—I mean, at some times when you see fires across the northward part of the inner Mountain West, when you see 200,000 acres lighting up in a couple of days, that's often fires that are in fairly dry areas where cheatgrass is playing a role," said Erica Fleischman, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute.

A silver lining to this year's drought is it offers less than favorable conditions for those types of grasses. OSU's study on reducing sagebrush steppe fires found prescribed burns are most effective at removing fuel loads, but left areas vulnerable to invasive grasses to establishing themselves in burn sites. Mechanical thinning of fuels reduced flame length, intensity and rate of spread but became less effective reducing spread and intensity after three years. Herbicide treatments tend to be the least effective management, that at best led to a short-term reduction of fuels.

"I feel the pressure of time in these systems," Ellsworth said. "We need to be implementing strategies that preserve our good-condition sagebrush steppe areas and get ahead of this invasive grass and fire feedback cycle that we're in."

About The Author

Jack Harvel

Jack is originally from Kansas City, Missouri and has been making his way west since graduating from the University of Missouri, working a year and a half in Northeast Colorado before moving to Bend in the Spring of 2021. When not reporting he’s either playing folk songs (poorly) or grand strategy video games,...

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