Sunriver has come a long way from its days of cedar shake roofs and protections around every tree, but the community is still looking for ways to keep shoring up its protections against wildfire.
On Wednesday, the Deschutes County Commission met with the Sunriver Service District in the resort’s main lodge. The meeting is an annual occurrence, but the commission added an item examining the history of the community’s unique relationship with wildfires and took public comment from a concerned citizen, according to Commissioner Tony DeBone. DeBone said the discussion revolved around whether the community can do more to remove bitterbrush and other fuel for wildfire from the community.
The meeting came after a brutal wildfire season in which about 9.5 million acres burned across the United States, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, and large swaths of Central Oregon were choked with wildfire smoke for much of the late summer.
“Anytime you can help educate the community on wildfire, that’s a good thing,” said Rod Bjorvik, interim fire chief for the Sunriver Fire Department.
Given its location in the forest, Sunriver has struggled to manage fuels for wildfires since the resort was developed in 1968. Alison Green, program director for Project Wildfire, which guides fire planning and mitigation in Deschutes County, said the community had strict guidelines around removing trees in the 1970s and 1980s, which built up the fuel load in the area.
“Back in the day, every tree was sacred,” Green said.
Hugh Palcic, general manager of the Sunriver Owners Association, said the Awbrey Hall Fire, which burned 3,350 acres and destroyed 22 homes along Bend’s western edge in 1990, was a wake-up call for Sunriver. Wood shake roofs, which were once mandatory in Sunriver, were outlawed, and the community got more serious about thinning projects on communal land.
In 2005, Sunriver completed its community wildfire protection plan, a document designed by local stakeholders to reduce the threat of wildfires and improve the community’s response. The document has been updated twice since then, most recently in 2015. Based on a collection of risk factors from the Oregon Department of Forestry, the 2015 update demonstrated that Sunriver has improved at most aspects of fire mitigation since 2005, including structural vulnerability and vegetation removal.
“You can see them moving the needle,” Green said.
Each year, Palcic said, the community brings in contractors to remove bitterbrush, pine needles and other fuels from around 1,500 acres of communal land. The land is maintained on a rolling six-year cycle. Additionally, the community is attempting to gradually replace some of the lodgepole pines in the area, which are less resistant to wildfire, with hardier ponderosa pines.
“We’re looking to change the ratio over time,” Palcic said.
Additionally, the owners association will send letters to owners who aren’t in compliance, which can eventually lead to citations. While Palcic acknowledged that the community can always do more, particularly regarding communication, he commended Sunriver’s ongoing effort to improve.
“We’re committed to reducing the risk,” Palcic said.
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