The Times - Serving Waitsburg, Dayton and the Touchet Valley

By Michele Smith
The Times 

Columbia County Wildfire Plan Updated

Plan beefs up coordination between local, state, and federal agencies

 


DAYTON--Anne Higgins, Columbia County Emergency Management Homeland Security Assistant, introduced an updated 2008 Columbia County Community Wildfire Protection Plan to stakeholders and landowners at a meeting last week at Fire Station District No. 3.

“Over time things change,” said Higgins about work that has been done on the CWP Plan. The biggest change has been the effort to coordinate all local, state, and federal agencies in firefighting efforts, she said.

Higgins said a $9,000 grant from the Oregon Department of Forestry allowed for the creation of an inclusive fire strategy that includes demographic data, landowner data, and land use data.

“Twelve out of 25 building permits issued by the county in 2015 for new construction are for recreational cabins, and those are in the wildland interface where fires get out of control, burn hot and burn fast,” she said.

Recently retired Fire Chief Rick Turner said there is a current cohesive wildfire strategy planning group that meets in La Grande. The Blue Mountain Conservation District meets four times a year. A Master Mutual Aid Agreement, made up of agencies in the county, including the schools, the fire districts and the public health department, are also in place.

Also, Walla Walla and Benton Counties can be called in to action. And, since the Grizzly Complex fire, the Sheriff’s Department is involved in a great working relationship in and out of the county, he said.

Additionally, a Mass Notification System has been put in place since 2008, said Lisa Caldwell, the County Emergency Management Director.

“We didn’t have those things in place during those fires,” Turner said, referring to the 2005 School Complex Fire, and the 2006 Columbia Complex Fire.

Caldwell said that the stakeholders that make up the steering committee for the Columbia County Community Wildfire Protection Plan have been actively listening to the public.

Several landowners, who were impacted by those fires, aired their concerns at the meeting. Concerns were about the shortage of operators on the Wolf Fork fire, and that not enough resources were put into fighting the Grizzly Complex fire in the National Forest, or in cleaning up dead timber.

It becomes challenging, said Renee Kuchner with the U.S. Forest Service. It is difficult to fight fire in the forest when helicopters can’t land, when mechanized equipment can’t get in, and taking into account fire fighter safety, she said.

Caldwell said the priority is to save critical infrastructure, like Ski Bluewood.

Landowners can become more fire-wise by replacing wood decking with brick decking, replacing shingled roofs with metal roofs, trimming trees, and creating a defensible space around their homes, Caldwell reminded the attendees.

Jack Fletcher said he lost 900 acres and six miles of fence in the Starbuck fire, and he was frustrated by the experience with firefighting operations. “There were just silly, foolish things,” he said.

Turner said there are funds through the Conservation District for rebuilding and reforestation, and a cost share program through the Department of Natural Resources, to help landowners with the cost of protecting property from fire.

“We don’t always do everything right. We don’t always do everything wrong. We try to do our best. We have to pick our spots, the Town of Starbuck, or pasture and fence,” Turner said.

The number-one goal is for life safety, for the public, and for boots on the ground, Turner explained.

“We have gotten a lot better at communication and organization,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell is currently seeking help from landowners to identify designated areas for sharing information, places to house fire teams, drop-off locations for community supplies, the locations of potential dipping ponds, and those landowners willing to undertake operator safety training on own equipment to be used for firefighting.

Columbia County also needs a public information officer, said Caldwell.

Caldwell called the Columbia County Community Wildfire Protection Plan “a living plan”. “There has been a lot of public input in the Plan,” she said.

The initial CWPP steering committee was formed in October, and has been meeting each month since November.

The steering committee is made up of professionals from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, local fire districts, various governmental agencies within Columbia County, the U.S. Forest Service, the Columbia County Conservation District, the Umatilla Tribes, and landowners.

For more information about the 2008 Columbia County Community Wildfire Protection Plan, or to help with any of the above requests from Caldwell, contact Anne Higgins at (509) 382-2518 or anne_higgins@co.columbia.wa.us.

 

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