It was early June of last year and I had just moved into my little rehabbed 1918 cabin with its back porch view of Hwy 197 coming down the hill from Bend. To my great dismay. I was just in time to watch the wild-fire that had consumed the far side of 197 and much of the surrounding area, move down the hill in the direction of the Deschutes River.
Deep breaths, as I reasoned it would have to jump both 197 and the river before making its way back up the hill to my little house and Maupin proper. Remembering that the Cascade Locks timber-fire had jumped the Columbia River and a major highway was not helpful. Knowing that fire travels faster uphill was also not contributing to the calm I was seeking. Although my rational mind won-out, I still had my Go-Bag with critical documents ready as I watched the fire’s steady progress. My car had a full tank of gas and in a rare turn-of-event I actually knew where my keys were! Having come from the land of Hurricanes and Tornados and grown accustomed to those threats, fire was new and carried with it a level of fear I’d not felt with natural disasters of the water and wind kind.
To some degree, I’d felt that fear when serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uganda, 2011-2013, where crop burning is routine after the summer harvest and it’s not unusual for the fires to overtake entire villages of thatched-roof mud-huts. Knowing this, when I was awakened by suffocating smoke in the wee-hours of one morning in dry-season where everything is a tinder-box, I expected the worst. I was actually somewhat relieved to discover it was only my back yard and not the entire town of Gulu. Still, the fire was consuming the yard—flames licking into the dry lower branches of large trees perilously close to the house. There was no water, no fire department, no electricity, no nothing– just me with my handy headlamp and a couple of Ugandan men in their boxer-shorts , the latter being content to watch as the flames grew higher. There may have been no water, but there was dirt and having been part of a volunteer fire department in the past, I knew a little something about using dirt to fight fire. So there in the night, I located a couple of garden hoes and buckets and taught two Ugandan men—first incredulous, then just amused—the art of fighting fire with dirt.
In Uganda, I had been able to turn fear into action, but as helpful as my efforts were in Uganda, there was nothing I could do about the fire I was watching, or for that matter any of many fires surrounding us. So I, too, could only watch.
Throughout the day, I felt like an extra in a National Geographic Special on wild-fires. Mesmerized, I watch as Air-tankers spread countless swaths of orange Bentonite fire- retardant, to the backdrop of whop-whop-whop as helicopters dipped into the canyon to
suck up a load of water from the Deschutes as rafters continued to ride the rapids. Popping back up to ferry their load to another hotspot or structure, I noticed one had a bucket; the other a long proboscis swinging down from its mid-section to suck water like a straw. I raced down to the access road to catch a glimpse of this as a choppers expertly hovered in front of rafters, wondering if a rafter has ever been in the wrong place at the wrong time…
This went on ‘till dusk, when the fire moving down the hill across me looked even more menacing as it encroached closer to the road, illuminating the sky in almost every direction. No way I was sleeping tonight. At one point I got in my car to see what the boundaries of the fire really were, as people who seemed more accustomed to this milled around the street corners.
Toward midnight, the previously vacant Highway 197 began to methodically populate with flashing lights, emergency vehicles and fire-fighters efficiently extinguishing the flames from the south peak of the hill, working from left-to-right as seen from my house.
The intention was clear: SAVE MAUPIN. And they did—save Maupin and countless homes and structures stranded in the maelstrom. Mere words cannot convey the sense of pure awe and gratitude I felt that night for the hundreds on men and women who do that work. I know I’m not alone in that sentiment.
While fires like this make us all feel vulnerable, there are things we can do around our homes and properties to reduce our risk and safeguard our homes and families. With this scenario a probability again this summer, somewhere near us, this would be a good time to get proactive.
To that end, what follows is a short check-list that to help you get started.
- Clean roofs and gutters of dead leaves and debris that can catch embers
- Replace/repair roof shingles to prevent ember penetration.
- Clean debris from exterior attic vents
- Clear dry leaves and prune dry leaves and stems from plants surrounding
structures to prevent embers from igniting
- Repair/replace window screens using 1/8 inch metal mesh reduce embers
- Move anything that will burn away from exterior walls
- Remove anything stored underneath decks or porches
- Screen or box in areas below patios/porches to prevent combustible materials
From: HOW TO PREPARE YOUR HOME FOR WILDFIRES, Firewise, USA.ORG This pamphlet and others are available for free at Maupin City Hall.