The Two Bulls Fire that threatened the west side of Bend last week was a wake-up call for residents, proof that the forest can be just as dangerous to live near as it is beautiful.
It was also a reminder that expanding the city west toward the Deschutes National Forest could be an expensive and risky decision because of the likelihood of wildfires.
Two Bulls was the second wildfire in 25 years to burn on or near the west side of Bend, where city councilors voted in 2009 to expand farther into the ponderosa forest. The state rejected the expansion plan for reasons unrelated to fire , and now city officials are redoing it.
Paul Dewey, a local lawyer and executive director of the Bend conservation group Central Oregon LandWatch, said on Friday that the 2009 expansion plan would have resulted in more people living where the risk of wildfire is highest.
“Last time, there was discussion of up to 2,000 more homes out there,” Dewey said. “With that many more people and three schools, it would just be a nightmare to try to evacuate that in the face of a fast-moving fire.”
City of Bend Principal Planner Brian Rankin said last week that the city will consider the risk of wildfire as it works on the latest expansion plan.
“There’s no easy solution to this,” Rankin said, pointing out that a community wildfire plan assigns a high risk of wildfire to the entire city. Rankin said that because of zoning decisions local officials made decades ago, land on the west side of the city would still receive top priority to be included in a city boundary expansion. However, fire and natural resources officials said there are a couple of reasons the west side of the city is at higher risk of fire. Winds typically sweep east off the Cascades, so they tend to push flames in the Deschutes National Forest toward the west edge of the city.
“Our prevailing winds always have that westward component, so if we get a fire on the west side of Bend, it will generally always spread east,” Deschutes County Forester Ed Keith said Friday. “The west side has an elevated risk, and then obviously the fuels — you’ve got enough moisture to grow more fuels,” Keith said, referring to the trees and other vegetation that would burn in a fire.
The ponderosa pine forest on the west side of Bend burns longer than desert grasses and brush east of the city, and fires in the forest can send embers over long distances, said Phil Chang, natural resource program administrator for Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council. “It’s stuff that when it catches on fire, it burns for a long time. … If you have something that’s dangerous, you need to think very carefully before you put homes even closer to that dangerous thing.”
As of Saturday, the cost to fight the Two Bulls Fire had reached $5.7 million and the blaze had burned more than 6,900 acres, according to the state-led team managing the fire. Officials have not released estimates of the property damage caused by the fire. The 3,350-acre Awbrey Hall Fire destroyed 22 homes in 1990, and at the time, officials estimated that it caused as much as $9 million in damage. Since then, developers have built many high-end homes in the scar of the Awbrey Hall Fire.
“Close to the forest, on the west side of Bend, is probably one of the most desirable places to live from many perspectives — access to recreation and things like that,” Chang said. “But close to the forest on the west side of Bend might also be one of the most dangerous places to live, from a wildfire perspective.”
A 2011 plan to protect Bend and the outskirts of the city from wildfire, drafted by a committee of local fire officials, business representatives and residents, stated that “previous population growth and projected future growth has led to increased residential development into forests and into the wildland urban interface … presenting an increased challenge for fire protection, fire prevention and law enforcement agencies.”
Chang said major forest thinning work currently underway, known as the West Bend Project, will help reduce the risk from overgrown forests west of the city. “I wouldn’t want people to hear that and say, ‘Oh, well we can build wherever we want and the Forest Service will protect us,’” Chang said. “But with the development in the wildland urban interface we have in Central Oregon already, we can help to make those subdivisions a little safer.”
The city planned since the 1970s to expand west toward the forest, and city planners noted in the early 1980s that private landholders in the area had made “financial commitments” based on the understanding they would be included in the city, according to a 1981 city comprehensive plan. Private property owners are not the only ones with something to gain if a future city expansion leads to more high-end homes on the west side. The city could receive millions in new property tax revenue as a result of expansion. The same taxpayers also pay the tab to fight huge wildfires, but that does not come out of the city’s budget.
The city’s urban growth boundary, the limit beyond which city development is prohibited in Oregon, was larger in the 1970s than the current city limits. But when the city drafted a comprehensive land use plan in the early 1980s, state land use officials told the city it had not demonstrated a need for all the land on the outer edge of its urban growth boundary, Peter Gutowsky, a principal planner for Deschutes County, said Friday. Instead, the state allowed the city to set aside the extra land as a reserve area for future expansion, and some of the land was rezoned to give it a higher priority for inclusion.
Dewey said LandWatch raised concerns in the past about the city allowing development near the forest.
“We actually raised this back in 2010 with (the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission), and said any expansion on the west side should be very limited, exactly because of this danger,” he said. In November 2008, Central Oregon LandWatch wrote in a letter to the Bend City Council and the Deschutes County Commission that “of particular concern to LandWatch is the city’s attempt to ignore … the fire risk on the west side of Bend.”
LandWatch referred to a 2000 article in Forest Magazine, a publication of the group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, that listed Bend as one of several cities in the West at risk of catastrophic wildfire such as the May 2000 Cerro Grande Fire that burned more than 200 homes in Los Alamos, N.M. The article noted that Bend “has built into the extensive ponderosa forests on the east side of the Cascade Range,” and that the city was “just as much at risk from a forest fire as Los Alamos was.”
LandWatch wrote that it was inappropriate for Bend to expand farther into the forest, because state law requires cities to consider natural hazards including wildfires in land use planning.
“The reality is that developing on the west side really puts people at risk, not just the people that live there, but the firefighters,” Dewey said.
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