A bolt of lightning struck a tree just outside Bruce Wilcox’s home in Morrow County last year, sending shards of wood flying 40 yards away.
“It didn’t start a fire,” he said. “It just hit that tree and went to (the) ground. But we were lucky.”
Now, Wilcox is helping his community, known locally as Blake Ranch, become the county’s first to join Firewise USA. He said the national program could be the key to protecting nearby homes from the next catastrophic fire.
Firewise is sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association, with the Oregon Department of Forestry managing it at the state level. Through training and local fire prevention projects, Firewise aims to encourage property owners to take proactive measures to prevent fires from destroying their homes and businesses.
Many of Oregon’s smallest and most isolated communities have become Firewise sites. Blake Ranch isn’t the first in Eastern Oregon: small communities in Baker, Grant and Wallowa counties have already secured the designation.
ODF spokesperson Jessica Prakke said these sparsely populated communities are among the target areas for the state.
“We’re definitely trying to reach those smaller communities that are in the wildland-urban interface because they can be the most susceptible to wildfire at times,” she said.
Blake Ranch sits in southern Morrow County, about 16 miles south of the county seat in Heppner, which is also the location of the nearest fire department. Located at the edge of federal forest land, Wilcox estimates that Blake Ranch has just over 30 full-time residents, along with additional part-time residents and vacationers.
Wilcox himself splits his time between Blake Ranch and Hermiston in neighboring Umatilla County in the warm weather months. He loves the area during the spring and summer, but the recent wildfires have concerned him.
Lightning-caused fires happen frequently near Blake Ranch. Although the community has access to water for fire suppression, dispatching fire engines from Heppner takes time.
Wilcox reached out to ODF after reading about a community in Wallowa County participating in the Firewise program. Since then, ODF has sent foresters to assess Blake Ranch properties for fire readiness, and several residents have taken a wildfire prevention class.
ODF doesn’t usually take the first step when it comes to turning communities into Firewise sites, Prakke said, because the agency needs community-buy in to make the program work. Wilcox said some Blake Ranch residents are skeptical — they fear that the program will require them to remove trees they want to keep. Wilcox thinks they may soften once they see the work that’s being planned, like when crews start clearing trees and other fire threats this spring.
“They can also reduce the fuel load,” Wilcox said. “So in the event that a fire did break out, it would be easier to control.”
Another community is also working toward becoming Morrow County’s second Firewise designee: Penland Lake, a community even further south of Heppner.