Portland’s Forest Park is one of the largest urban forests in the country. And like any forest, it is susceptible to wildfires, especially as summers become hotter and drier.
For people whose homes are nestled in or near the park, a forest fire would be devastating. So some neighborhoods have begun to organize into what are called “firewise communities.”
Firewise is a national program set up to help communities near fire-prone areas to make their space more defensible against wildfires. Linnton was the first neighborhood in Multnomah County to organize this way, though the designation is more common on the eastern side of the state.
“I think like most neighbors living near Forest Park, even 10 years ago, we weren’t concerned about wildfires in this area,” said Ralph Brooks, a volunteer coordinator for the southern Forest Park firewise neighborhood. “It’s only been in the last five years that we’ve really seen the evidence of climate change and the concerns. Forest Park was closed in 2020 for the first time in history because of wildfire risk. It was crazy.”
Kim Kosmas, senior public education officer for the Portland Bureau of Fire and Rescue, has been helping firewise volunteers educate their neighbors about what they can do on their own properties to help reduce the spread of wildfire. The forest itself has mostly been managed for invasive species, Kosmas says, not for wildfire.
“You cannot fireproof a forest. It is very difficult,” Kosmas said. She adds that this work with firewise communities “will essentially help the neighborhoods that are involved become more resilient because if a fire does happen, there’s less likelihood that the neighborhood will burn or be affected as badly.”
Brooks notes that much of the work that homeowners can undertake is “frankly common sense:” cleaning gutters, removing debris from around houses, adding fine mesh screens to vents so that embers can’t enter homes, eliminating ivy and clematis that can become a ladder fuel, and pruning trees near houses.”
Of course, many of the people who live on the edges of Forest Park enjoy the atmosphere of having a home in a forest and may be resistant to government evaluations of their property. Shawn Looney, a firewise volunteer coordinator in Linnton, says it’s all about how you deliver the message.
“We’re not going to say you must cut down that tree that you love so much that’s a little too close to your house. But you might want to limb it up so that if there were to be a fire, it wouldn’t catch everything else on fire quite so readily,” Looney said.
Even if homeowners are willing to work on their properties, the overlapping city and county bureaucracies can make getting a permit both difficult and expensive, Brooks said: “One of the challenges we’ve been working towards is trying to address some of the relief from regulation. But so far it’s been little to no avail. It’s a complex regulation system, and it’s a pretty high burden for neighbors to have to overcome.”