Back to Fire Alert Page

Thrice Burned

The Oregonian
Wednesday, July 17, 2002

Central Oregonians have seen those lonely chimneys before, like the ones left standing over the ashes of 18 homes destroyed by the Eyerly fire near Madras.

They saw them in 1990 when the Awbrey Hall fire swept through suburban Bend, obliterating 21 homes on one hot, windy and terrifying afternoon. The same grim scene was repeated in 1996 when lightning touched off another wind-driven blaze, the Skeleton fire, that torched 18,000 acres and 19 homes on Bend's southeastern flank.

Now thrice burned, it ought to be abundantly clear that rural fire departments, Forest Service and tribal fire crews and even tankers and helicopters cannot ensure the protection of homes that have sprung up throughout the pine and juniper forests of Central and Eastern Oregon. It's a harsh lesson much of the West is learning this summer as huge fires sweep Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and other states.

And yet, in Central Oregon one still hears some anguished people who have lost their homes complaining bitterly about the firefighting effort, suggesting that a more aggressive response might have protected the Three Rivers area near Madras from the Eyerly fire, which blackened 17,300 acres this week.

Well, maybe. But fire crews from the Warm Springs Indian Reservation attacked the fire on the same day, July 9, that smoke was first reported. And after three devastating fires in one small region in a little more than a decade -- and countless fires elsewhere around the West -- it seems clear that the issues are rural development, land management and fire prevention, not the quality of firefighting efforts.

Central Oregon is a case study in what happens when communities allow homes to march deep into forests and rangelands that have burned repeatedly over the centuries. If you've ever been in rural Central Oregon, you can understand what's driven the influx there -- the spectacular views of the Cascades, the smell of the sage and juniper, the soft sound of the wind through the tops of the pines.

Authorities and residents have tried in recent years to make rural homes safer from fire. Few new homes are built with shake roofs. Most rural homeowners clear away brush and trees to create a defensive space around their homes. Statewide fire education programs have helped spread the word about these and other ways to reduce the risk of losing homes in wildland fires.

Meanwhile, land management agencies have sought to engage in preventive burning and brush-clearing to reduce the risk of fires, sometimes even in the face of opposition from rural landowners. Bureaucratic inertia in the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, a lack of funds and environmentalist appeals all have slowed fire prevention efforts. Oregon and other Western states badly need much more active, and much better funded, prescribed burning and thinning programs.

However, the Eyerly fire and the many other blazes burning this week are reminders that there is no fireproofing Central Oregon, or much of the arid West. When the lightning strikes and the hot winds blow, the land and everything on it is going to burn.

No one should blame firefighters for the tragic loss of the homes to the Eyerly fire.

The harsh truth is, you take your chances settling in the middle of fire country.

And sometimes you get burned.

Back to Fire Alert Page