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About

About FireFree

With snow-capped peaks of the Cascade Mountains framing views to the west, and the arid high desert extending to the east, the beauty and uniqueness of central Oregon are spectacular. With this beauty, however, comes the very real risk of wildfire. Central Oregon communities experience large wildfires virtually every summer that threaten lives, property, wildlife and our beautiful landscape. Evacuations during these events cause an even greater challenge.

Every summer, storms move across the region bringing lightning strikes that cause hundreds of wildfires. Wildfire is a fact of life in central Oregon. Add to this fact the hundreds of wildfires caused by careless people and it’s a recipe for disaster. By taking responsibility for creating defensible space on your own property, you greatly reduce your chances of losing your home to wildfire. Act now!

FireFree History

Awbrey Hall Fire

It began on August 4, 1990, and in 10 short hours, this fire grew to 3,500 acres. It jumped three major roads and the Deschutes River in that time. 3,000 people were evacuated even though many knew their home might not be there when they returned. Many homeowners tried to stay until the last moment to defend their homes as they watched the flame front get closer to their backyards. Once officials evacuated the majority of the residents, the concern grew that the fire would reach people who were waiting to escape in their cars. Awbrey Hall caused $9 million in total damages, including suppression costs and insurance claims. All 22 of the homes lost were in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). A wildland fire was the last thing residents considered when moving into the forests of beautiful Central Oregon and most had not planned for it. After assessing the damage of Awbrey Hall, officials found that the majority of the homes that had fallen victim were lacking in their defensible space.

The Skeleton Fire

In August 1996 dry lightning ignited the Skeleton Fire on the east side of Bend and, almost immediately Bend Fire Department sounded the call for the evacuation of homeowners that were in the fire’s path. Flames were quickly moving west towards an even more populated area. Soon the fire grew to 17,000 acres and consumed 30 homes and outbuildings. In a matter of hours, it caused the evacuation of 450 homes and caused $2 million worth of damage. Firefighters reported that they did not even have time to assess some homes. They just had to let them go and move on. Many of the residents evacuated knew that if the fire reached their backyard, their home would not survive. The Skeleton Fire was driven solely by the wind and many feared that the damage would be worse than Awbrey Hall. The Skeleton Fire was even more dynamic. Luckily, officials on the ground caught a break in the winds, once again that allowed for them to suppress the fire before any more damage could be done.

The Change

Both of these large fires had unimaginable losses and devastated the Central Oregon community. Many of these homeowners appreciated the natural landscape and did not think it needed any improvement. A wildfire in their backyard nor the steps to mitigate the risks posed by living in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) was something that was never addressed as it is now.  These large wildfires in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) created the motivation for an outreach program unlike any other in Central Oregon. This new program had the ability to hold each individual responsible for his or her own space while still empowering the homeowner to defend their property by defining their defensible space. These steps are still at the core of the FireFree program in the form of a simple checklist for anyone who wants to take the necessary steps to protect their home against a large wildfire. The goal of FireFree was to empower the “spark plugs” (a dedicated community member) in each community and inspire the grass roots to move the program forward.

FireFree was Born

Once the losses had been tallied for the Skeleton Fire, a local insurance company saw the need Central Oregon had for funding. They offered to buy a new fire engine for Bend Fire Department. However, the Fire Marshal at Bend Fire had a different idea. He suggested to the company that the money they would spend on a fire engine would be better served if used to launch a comprehensive education program and purchase educational materials instead. He believed that instead of purchasing a new engine that could only protect one home at a time during a large wildfire, why not develop a program that could protect thousands of homes. This program was intended to inform homeowners how to defend their homes by creating defensible space, which is defined as at least a 30-foot buffer zone of reduced vegetation around a home to mitigate the effects of advancing fire. The premise of FireFree was first to change the behavior and over time, the attitudes and culture about wildfire preparedness. His proactive idea was the beginning of the FireFree program in Central Oregon and the ten-step checklist that any homeowner can use to define defensible space around their home.

The FireFree days typically occur every year in the spring and the fall. The spring days are completely free for residents to drop off yard debris at landfills throughout Deschutes County. The fall days are half-price days at Deschutes Recycling in Bend. On a ten-year average, the FireFree days have collected 28,643 cubic yards of debris. The total amount of yard debris collected during FireFree events since 1999 is 444,605 cubic yards. This is enough yard debris to fill almost 44,500 dump trucks.