Potlucks and Sparkplugs: Firewise Success Catches on in Upper Cow Creek
Author: Marcus Kauffman
Editors Note: A version of this post was first published on the Southwest Oregon Fire Blog (ODF Southwest Oregon).
Southern Oregon is wildfire country. In the last five years about one-third of the 325,000-acre Tiller Ranger District on the Umpqua National Forest has been blackened by wildfire. As of September 6th, the Stouts Creek Fire had already burned 26,452 and was near wrapping up at 98 percent containment. Locals here know about living with wildfire. They have learned that adapting to wildfire means getting to know your neighbors and that potlucks are the perfect place to talk about being a fire adapted community.
When the Stouts Creek Fire was threatening homes east of the community of Azalea back in August, fire managers were pleased to learn that Milo, Tiller, and Upper Cow Creek Road were designated Firewise Communities. Being Firewise means homeowners have taken significant steps to make their homes defensible from a wildfire. After several years of hard work, 14 homes and several roads including Upper Cow Creek Rd have defensible space and have joined the dozen other recognized Firewise communities in Douglas County.
The maxim that many hands makes light work applies here. Grant resources, program support and technical assistance came from the Douglas Forest Protective Association, the Umpqua National Forest, Douglas County Public Works, the Phoenix Charter School and others. At the grassroots level, neighbors did not just come together on their own. There was a spark, a catalyst, someone who overcame the inertia and fostered change. That person was Kathy Staley of Upper Cow Creek Rd.
“The Umpqua National Forest is part of our community,” said Kathy Staley. “Donna Owens, Tiller District Ranger, made it easy for us. We hold regular potlucks and Donna and her staff began attending. As we got to know one another we naturally broadened our circle of care to include those who work for the Forest Service,” she explained.
“Prior to these gatherings, the relationship with the Umpqua NF was often adversarial. It helped that Ranger Owens was willing to say the tough but honest things,” Staley said. “That built trust in the eyes of the community members.”
Clearly motivated, Kathy explained that her career as an engineering inspector gave her a sharp and critical eye. “I saw a need,” she explained. “I’m relatively new to the community. We learned that there were grants available to help pay for removing the brush and small trees to make our homes safer from wildfire,” she said. The grant funds and other monies helped pay for road crews removing roadside brush.
“Red Apple Road used to be tight with brush,” explained Kathy Pack of Upper Cow Creek Road. “It made me nervous thinking about driving it during a wildfire. Getting the roads and houses cleared of brush out really gave me piece of mind,” she said.
Once the neighbors learned that they could meet their commitment by contributing their time, the idea spread like creamy peanut butter. Using the county’s road crew and students from the Phoenix Charter School, they were able conduct defensible space activities at more than a dozen homes—removing brush and small trees and pruning up the branches on larger trees to make the homes safer from wildfire.
“We’ve owned this piece of land for 30 years,” said Jim Pack. “I planted all the trees myself and each one has a name. This place is a dream come true for me. Making it safer from wildfire was just something we had to do. We have too much at stake to live with the risk of it burning.”
Just as local residents gave their time, staff from the Tiller Ranger District understood they had to do the same. “The relationship building just took time,” said Terry Brown, Fire Management Officer, Tiller Ranger District. “The relationships we have with the community are the most valuable results from this process.”
The Douglas Forest Protective Association formed the third leg of the Firewise triangle. Firewise Coordinator Dennis Sifford advises communities on becoming Firewise.
“The program helps make homeowners aware of the risks and teaches them about the little things they can do to help their homes survive a wildfire,” said Dennis.
Wildfire is a frequent visitor to southern Oregon. Building resilience and adapting to wildfire depends on knowing your neighbors, widening the circle of care and finding the catalysts in the community who can make things happen. In these Firewise communities, these grass roots efforts have clearly paid off.
“When I learned that the residents of Upper Cow Creek Road were designated Firewise, I was more confident that we could protect the homes and that our firefighters would come home safely,” explained Steve Bowen, Structural Liaison for the Stouts Creek Fire.