When the Rooster Rock fire ballooned from a few acres early last week to more than 3,000 acres in a matter of hours, it threatened more than just homes and trees south of Sisters. The fire, which grew to more than 6,000 acres before firefighters got the upper hand on the blaze, threatened to turn the dream of a community forest outside Bend into a moonscape of smoldering ashes when it started burning into the Bull Springs Tree Farm. The 33,000-acre nursery, known to Central Oregonians as Skyline Forest, is one of the longest running conservation efforts in Bend and one that seemed to be growing closer to realization before flames from the Rooster Rock blaze started licking at the edge of Skyline property, threatening to consume a large portion of the forest as state and federal fire fighters struggled to contain the fast-growing conflagration.
Crews eventually brought the wildfire under control late last week and full containment was expected by Tuesday evening (after this issue went to press). But even as the lines closed around the Rooster Rock blaze, questions linger about the wisdom of encouraging more development in the wildfire zones around Central Oregon. It's an issue that arises every fire season in Central Oregon as homeowners are seemingly asked annually to pack their belongings and flee the oncoming flames in places like Sunriver, Black Butte Ranch and even Bend (this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Awbrey Hall fire west of Bend that torched more than 20 homes before it was corralled.) But it's a particularly relevant question with regard to the Rooster Rock fire because of its proximity to Skyline Forest where as many as 280 homes have been mulled in a development deal among the property's owner, Fidelity National Timber Resources, conservation groups and lawmakers.
At this point it's not clear how or if the fire might impact Fidelity's future development plans for the site. The fire management team has yet to inventory how much of the Fidelity property was involved in the Rooster Rock fire, the majority of which burned on private lands - roughly 4,800 of the more than 6,000 total acres by the Forest Service's count. However, several people with knowledge of the fire said that it burned onto Fidelity's Skyline property before changing course. Most importantly, it reportedly burned onto a portion of the land that was marked for development, which included a mix of homes and open space under the deal struck among Fidelity and several other stakeholders, including the Deschutes Basin Land Trust, Central Oregon Landwatch and lawmakers.
Land use attorney Nancy Craven who has been representing the company throughout its negotiations traveled to Sisters to monitor the fire late last week for Fidelity. But Craven said it's too soon to say what damage the fire did at Skyline or how that might impact the company's plans. Land Trust executive director Brad Chalfant also monitored the fire closely last week, posting updates on the organization's website as it crossed into the Skyline area. Chalfant, however, said he is in wait-and-see mode at the moment while crews mop up around the fire perimeter.
"At this point, there are more questions than answers," Chalfant said.
The fact that the fire touched any of Fidelity's proposed development pad underscores the inherent contradictions of striking development deals- - no matter how attractive - in the wildfire zone. While Central Oregon has largely escaped destructive wildfires over the past two years, the topic of wildland fire, and specifically fire in the so-called wildland-urban interface, has received significant attention at the federal level over the last few years as more wildfires burn larger and hotter across the country, straining fire fighting agencies' ability to keep pace. In 2007, state, federal and private firefighters spent more than $3 billion fighting wildfires that burned 10 million acres across the United States and consumed more than 5,000 structures, according to a report by the National Wildland Urban Interface Council. It's a problem that gains urgency each year as more homes are built in the forest. Between 1990 and 2007, more than half of all new homes built in the United States were built in "wildland" zones, according to the report, bringing the total number of homes in high-fire-risk areas to 45 million in the United States. Besides the financial burden, there is also another cost of fighting fires around homes. While there are no firm statistics, forest homes and developments tend to put firefighters in harm's way and keep them there longer, increasing the likelihood that they will be hurt or killed, as seven fire fighters were in 2007, while trying to fight a fire.
The issue of development in fire-prone zones isn't a simple policy question. Property rights and historic development patterns, not to mention people's desire for their own piece of forested paradise, usually in the drought and fire-prone western United States, make it difficult to manage development in the wildland zone. In the case of Fidelity and the Skyline Forest, for example, the issue can't be reduced to a simple yes-or-no question with regard to development. Oregon and Deschutes County's land use laws open the door for scattered development across Skyline Forest should Fidelity pursue it. While some conservationists have argued for fighting those proposals as they arise rather than opening the door for a large-scale development in the hills (i.e. a golf course community with 1,000 or so homes as was discussed in the not-too-distant past), there is mounting evidence to show that such a strategy would only lead to parcelization. The result would be fewer opportunities to create fire-resistant areas, known as defensible space in fire lingo. A report released last year by the Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station found that without some form of formal protection, the Skyline Forest would be carved into smaller private parcels within the next 40 years, given current development patterns and land-use restrictions.
Realizing such restrictions, conservationists led by Central Oregon Landwatch opted to work with Fidelity on a development-for-preservation plan rather than work against the company on its long-term plans for Skyline. The result was a seemingly landmark deal that would have allowed Fidelity to develop up to 280 homes on the northwest corner of the forest. In exchange, Fidelity agreed to sell the majority of the property at timber value to the Deschutes Basin Land Trust, which would have managed the property in perpetuity for a mix of interests, including wildlife, recreation and timber. In all, the land trust would receive about 30,000 acres, with Fidelity retaining roughly 3,000 acres. Of those remaining acres Fidelity would have been limited to residential use on roughly 1,200 acres with the rest placed in a buffer area that would, among other things, theoretically reduce the chance of wildfire racing through the development.
Landwatch Executive Director Erik Kancler helped broker the deal at the legislature after years of fighting development in the Skyline area. While the Rooster Rock fire has certainly reinforced the need to control development in the forest, Kancler said he still believes the deal with Fidelity, which has a five-year window should Fidelity choose to exercise it, is still a good way to balance all the competing interests. Kancler said the preferred alternative is to preserve the entire forest with no development in the fire-prone areas, but the current deal might be the best one that the community can secure- - fire danger notwithstanding.
"There's a future that looks quite worse from a parcelization and management perspective. There are definitely some that could be better. But this is the deal that we put on the table and we felt good about it then and we feel good about it now," he said.