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Preventing the next big fire

Fire damage in Elkhorn, Feb. 26, 2021, after the Beachie Creek fire devastated the area in 2020.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Fire damage in Elkhorn, Feb. 26, 2021, after the Beachie Creek fire devastated the area in 2020.

Oregon has a $220 million plan to prevent the kind of destructive wildfires that burned thousands of homes and killed nine people last year. The plan covers everything from removing fuel from forests and de-energizing power lines to changing how we build and maintain our homes and communities. OPB’s Cassandra Profita has been reporting on the aftermath of last year’s big fires.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. This week marks the one year anniversary of the Labor Day fires that together burned more than a million acres up and down the western half of Oregon; entire neighborhoods were destroyed. Thousands of Oregonians lost their homes. We’re going to spend the hour today talking about various aspects of the fires. Later we’ll hear about what the last year has been like for the community of the Phoenix-Talent School District and we’ll talk to the Chair of the House Special Committee on Wildfire Recovery in the Oregon Legislature. We start with OPB Reporter Cassandra Profita. She’s been reporting on both the devastation the fires wreaked and big questions about how we should prepare for the fires to come. Cassandra. Welcome back.

Cassandra Profita: Hi, Dave!

Miller: Hey there. So let’s start with the trip you took to the Opal Creek Wilderness. This was for an Oregon Field Guide story that just posted online. It’s going to air on tv in October. Why did you go to Opal Creek?

Profita: So part of it was that the show has filmed there so many times before. So we had lots of video footage of what the area looked like before the fire and of course it was beautiful. We filmed there in 1998 when the area was first protected as a wilderness and then we went back again in 2007. I think just because we loved it so much. So at that point the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center was the perfect place for especially kids to learn about old growth forests, It’s a watershed that’s never been logged, and it’s some of Oregon’s last remaining old growth forest and so it’s really a super special place and we wanted to show people what it looked like after the fire. We wanted to see, ourselves, because the Beachie Creek Fire started just about two miles away from Jawbone Flats, which is this old mining camp that became the Ancient Forest Center Educational Center. Everyone kind of knew that it wasn’t going to be the same after the fire.

Miller: What was the hike into Jawbone Flats like?

Profita: It was rough. We couldn’t take the normal route because there’s far too many burned trees and bridges on the trail you would normally take to get there. Plus, we learned that when we went in June, the Beachie Creek Fire was still burning underground and flaring up here and there. So the route we were allowed to take, with a permit from the Forest Service was one that hadn’t been maintained at all since the fire and there were just so many fallen trees, not burned for the most part, but just blown over, covering the trail and so it was like 8-9 miles of walking with 35 pounds on your back and stopping constantly to duck under or crawl over all of these fallen trees. It was exhausting.

Miller: Who’d you go with?

Profita: We went with two people from the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center and really that’s why we were allowed in. They hadn’t hiked into their facility yet. And so it was a big deal for us to come along with them on that first hike. Then I invited a Forest Ecologist in large part because I knew I wanted to spend some time talking, not just about what was lost but also what was still there in this treasured forest.

Miller: Can you describe what you found when you got to that old mining village which had been turned into this Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center, this Education Center?

Profita: It was a lot of rubble. These sort of perfect square piles of ash and blackened rusty metal where the old mining camp buildings used to be. The fire destroyed all of the original mining camp buildings from the 1930s. There were awesome historic cabins that people would stay in when they came to visit. And there was only one cabin that survived. It was a newer cabin so it wasn’t one of the originals, but that does mean that the Ancient Forest Center has a kind of a home base when they got there. It was untouched so there’s still beds and tables and chairs inside and we got to stay there for the night.

Miller: The wide angle shots and even maybe more specifically the footage from above, from helicopters. It shows immense, almost total devastation. But then when you zoom in sometimes and do close up shots on the ground, there were literally green shoots and this is what, a lot of what that Ecosystems Ecologist you mentioned, his name is Boone Kaufman from Oregon University, that’s what it seemed like he was paying attention to. What exactly did he find and what did he show you?

Profita: As soon as we entered the burn forest, he was pointing out all kinds of things that we might have hiked right past. There were wildflowers, mushrooms, new bear grass and a plant called fireweed that’s named for its ability to sprout after fires. Then he was finding these just itty bitty little tree sprouts, just tiny Doug fir trees and hemlocks and one of them was literally growing out of a fir cone and he was adamant that this is how the forest works. So many forest species, they’re ready for fire, they’ve evolved with fire. And so some of the trees didn’t die because they have a super thick bark to keep them alive. And many of the trees and plants they drop their seeds all over. And so they’re ready to sprout up after a fire.

Miller: But I was struck by the sense that the time scale for the hope and the resilience that people like Boone Kauffman are paying attention to and talking about, the return to this grand Forest, the time scale is literally on the order of many, many generations. Is it fair to say that no one alive right now, not even little kids, none of us are going to see Opal Creek Wilderness the way it was before September of 2020?

Profita: Yeah, I think that’s a harsh way of putting it, but it is fair to say. When we were at the Opal Pool, which before the fire was this luminous swimming pool shaded by lush green trees. Boone Kaufman was estimating that those trees were between 100 and 200 years old. There are also like 800 to 1000 year old trees in that forest. But the fire killed almost all of the trees around Opal Pool and then blew them over into these huge, blackened piles that are now surrounding the Pool. And so even though he found these little tiny tree sprouts, it will be centuries before those baby trees can recreate the kind of forest that so many people enjoyed around Opal Pool.

Miller: If you’re just tuning in. We’re talking right now with Cassandra Profita, a reporter for OPB, who’s been looking into the effects and the responses to the Labor Day Fires that burned more than a million acres, almost exclusively in Western Oregon last year. So let’s turn to another big post fire story that you just put out. This one is about Senate Bill 762. It’s just one of more than a dozen fire-related bills that lawmakers passed in the last legislative session, but this is a, it’s a really big one. Can you describe the overall purpose of this bill?

Profita: It’s fairly straightforward actually. It’s basically a plan to avoid the kind of catastrophic wildfires that Oregon saw last Labor Day. Governor Brown described it as the state’s effort to modernize our approach to wildfires and make sure that we’re better prepared, because we clearly weren’t ready for the kind of fires that just tore through entire communities last year and burned a million acres.

Miller:There is a big price tag associated with this, $220 million. What’s that money going to be spent on?

Profita: So this bill covers a lot of ground. A bunch of the money will be spent on improving our firefighting capabilities, and reducing fuels that wildfires feed on by cutting trees in the forest and doing more prescribed burning. Some of the money will go towards a new program called the Wildfire Workforce Corp, which will be putting young people to work clearing brush and flammable material around communities, especially in areas known as the Wildland-Urban Interface, where you see a lot of homes right next to forest land or other wild land areas and high fire risk. There’s funding for protecting people from wildfire smoke in clean air shelters. The bill also calls for mapping fire risk across the entire state and putting every parcel of land into a fire risk category from low to extreme. And then there are some new rules that will be created to protect homes and communities in those high fire risk areas. So there’ll be new requirements for clearing vegetation around homes and new building codes to try to keep homes from burning.

Miller: So this is what, based on your reporting, it seems like you’re getting to what could be one of the more contentious issues going forward tied to this program to clear trees or shrubs from around homes in the so-called Wildland-Urban Interface. Before we get to the contentious part, what’s the idea behind this?

Profita: So there’s a lot of research that tells us how to keep homes and communities from burning. We’ve done a lot of work on this question. Clearing vegetation and flammable material like bark mulch within a certain distance of a home helps a lot. Building with less flammable materials like a metal roof or concrete siding can help tremendously. It also helps if you avoid gutters that can accumulate flammable material and air vents that can allow embers from a nearby fire to enter the house. I got to see the effect of these measures in the Elkhorn community in the Santiam Canyon, there’s a neighborhood where almost all of the homes burned to the ground in the Beachie Creek fire last year and then there’s this one home with this gleaming green metal roof that was just completely untouched by the fire. The owners did all the things I just mentioned and they didn’t even see any smoke damage inside.

Miller: Mm. So let’s turn to the tension. Where does the tension come from around this program?

Profita: So it comes from making these property changes mandatory, creating statewide rules that require people to change their private property in ways they might not want to, or ways that could cost more money.  Critics of the bill have talked a lot about the unintended consequences of putting blanket rules in place, requiring defensible space around homes; would that mean that a small woodland owner, for example, would have to cut down some of the trees that would otherwise be profitable crops? I spoke with Dave Honnicutt with the Oregon Property Owners’ Association about how we’re going about setting all these new rules, and one key sticking point has to do with how we define the areas that will very likely get the most regulation, these high fire risk areas known as the Wildland-Urban Interface. And here’s what he said about that.

Dave Hunnicutt: The definition speaks for itself. It’s the Wildland Urban Interface. So it requires three things. It requires wild land, vegetation, it requires an urban setting and it requires an interface where those two areas meet. They don’t meet out in the middle of Harney County. They don’t.

Miller:  So we’re talking about groups here, homeowners, homebuilders, farmers, private timberland holders that together wield a lot of political power in the state. Could that mean that in the end, there’s going to be less fire resiliency in various areas of Oregon than experts or fire managers would recommend?

Profita: I think it could mean that, you know the way that the bill shook out. There’s room for negotiation on how we set these rules. There are stakeholder groups that are all weighing in on how we’re developing them. And there’s gonna be a system for property owners to challenge their fire risk classification. So I think that’s something that advocates are worried about. The other issue with all these critics weighing in on all the rules is that it’s going to take longer to get all the new rules in place.

Miller: So what is the timeline right now in terms of figuring out exactly what these rules are and then putting them in place?

Profita: By June we should have some of the maps, all these maps, showing us which areas face the highest fire risk, and then October of next year is the deadline for setting new building codes and defensible space requirements. So that’s essentially after next year’s fire season.

Miller: Cassandra. Thanks very much.

Profita: Thank you.

Miller:  Cassandra Profita is a Reporter for OPB.

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