Stephen Hamway
The Bulletin

CULVER — At first glance, the havoc wreaked by the Graham Fire in the small, rural subdivision of Three Rivers looks fairly indiscriminate. Fully intact homes near the edge of a steep canyon sit next to piles of ash and debris where nearly identical homes had stood a week before.

A closer inspection of the remote Jefferson County community reveals the small actions that people took to ensure a wildfire would bypass their homes.

As he walked among the homes in the scar of the Graham Fire, Don Colfels, fire chief for Lake Chinook Fire and Rescue, noted that an intact white house by the canyon was directly in the fire’s path, but it survived in part because the owner had installed a fireproof roof and deck and removed trees within 10 feet of the structure.

“This thing just took the brunt of the fire and survived,” Colfels said.

Creating defensible space — a buffer without flammable trees, grasses or shrubs around a home — is a protective technique preached by a number of public agencies and nonprofits in Central Oregon.

Alison Green, program coordinator for Project Wildfire, which directs fire planning and mitigation in Deschutes County, said homes typically burn during a wildfire either from small embers flying ahead of the fire or from low-intensity brush fires nearby.

Because of that, she said residents should focus on clearing tall grasses and other flammable plant material from an area of up to 30 feet around their homes. She added that low-hanging limbs of trees should be removed, which can keep ground fires from getting into the crowns of the trees.

This type of work, along with outfitting homes with fire-resistant roofs and decks and keeping them free of flammable material, can create up to a 90 percent chance of surviving a wildfire, according to Green.

“This is the role (residents) can play in firefighting,” she said.

During the Graham Fire — the first to enter the Three Rivers subdivision in 16 years — Colfels said there were 73 structures within the footprint of the fire. Just three homes, along with a few trailers and other small buildings, burned. Colfels credited the work done by firefighters to contain the blaze but also said it was made possible by homeowners taking steps to protect their buildings.

“We can’t do it all on our own,” he said. “There’s not enough engines to protect every single structure.”

Even before the Graham Fire, nearby wildfires were a relatively common occurrence in Three Rivers, a recreational community of about 750 homes about 7 miles west of Cove Palisades State Park. The 23,000-acre Eyerly Fire hit the community in 2002, forcing the community to evacuate and ultimately destroying 18 buildings in the area. At the time, Colfels said the community lacked a rural fire protection district.

“I saw there was a huge need to get some sort of protection,” he said.

Lake Chinook Fire and Rescue, which includes Colfels and a handful of volunteers, was eventually founded in 2008. Colfels said the fire district, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary last week, has prioritized working with neighbors on defensible space, seeking out grants, holding workshops for residents and conducting site inspections at various houses.

One challenge is simply getting the word out. Colfels said Three Rivers is primarily inhabited by part-time residents who come over to hunt, fish and boat on the weekends.

“When I’m holding a meeting at 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning to talk about defensible space, they have better stuff to be doing,” he said. “They work hard all week; they don’t want to come over here and work.”

When the Graham Fire ignited June 21, it put the community’s work to the test. After spotting the wildfire, Colfels quickly realized it was moving too rapidly for his team to catch up with.

The wildfire split off in two directions, scorching 75-foot-tall ponderosa pines and consuming the structures in its path. Part of the fire traveled east into a canyon before climbing rapidly up a steep slope toward homes.

The community had been evacuated, but the buildings remained in the fire’s path. Colfels said a crucial difference between a canyon-side home that’s still standing and one that isn’t is the composition of the deck. Where the remaining home used a fire-resistant composite, the other had a flammable wooden deck. The owner of the existing home also had cleared small juniper trees extending down into the canyon.

Another home, in a different part of the community, was encircled by at least 30 feet of gravel and grass trimmed to the ground. Colfels said he recommends that people trim their grass in May, right before it begins to dry out for the summer.

In addition to keeping fire away from homes, Colfels said creating defensible space can help firefighters. The safer residents can make a property for firefighters, the more able they are to defend it, Green added.

“There isn’t a tree or a home that’s worth a firefighter’s life,” she said.

Green and Colfels agreed that creating defensible space doesn’t guarantee safety during a wildfire. One home Colfels pointed to did almost everything right and still had embers enter its attic, where only a lack of oxygen kept it from igniting. Green added that, as fire seasons across the West get longer and drier, situations arise that are impossible to plan for.

“In wildland fire, there’s no guarantee whatsoever,” Green said.

Still, Colfels said having a buffer zone around your home can improve the odds and provide relative peace of mind for residents. Eunice Grant, a Three Rivers resident with a home in the footprint of the Graham Fire, credits Colfels and his outreach for protecting the house. “I’ve been overwhelmed but appreciative that that roof is over my head,” Grant said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818,