A year after the Milli Fire, Deschutes County is eligible for a federal grant that could help prevent the next wildfire, starting with a troublesome plot of land east of Redmond.
During a work session on Wednesday, the Deschutes County Commission discussed the possibility of using grant money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to remove flammable brush and trim trees on part of a county-owned parcel east of Redmond. Spanning 1,800 acres north of state Highway 126 adjacent to the city, the parcel has long been a target for people illegally cutting firewood, shooting guns, dumping trash and camping.
Because of the illegal use, the land’s proximity to the city and the lack of thinning efforts in the past, Deschutes County Forester Ed Keith said the county had concerns about a wildfire breaking out there. “This is one of our largest properties where we really haven’t done any fuel reduction,” Keith said.
When combined with a 25 percent local match from the county, the grant would provide about $665,000 toward fire mitigation efforts on county-owned lands. “I’d lean toward doing as much as we can,” Commissioner Tammy Baney said. She noted that removing fuel for fires in one fell swoop is less expensive than battling a wildfire.
The Milli Fire, ignited by a lightning strike west of Sisters in August 2017, burned more than 24,000 acres of forest, prompting evacuations and shrouding Bend, Sisters and other parts of Central Oregon in heavy smoke for weeks.
The fire makes Deschutes County eligible for a federal grant program for hazard mitigation efforts following a federal disaster declaration. The federal money would total $498,676. With the county’s match, spending would total $664,901.
Keith said the funds can be used for a variety of mitigation efforts, but fuel reduction in overgrown areas rose to the top of the list in Deschutes County, given the fire risk Central Oregon faces.
James Lewis, property manager for Deschutes County, said the 1,800-acre parcel is a good fit for the grant program because it’s close to Redmond and hasn’t seen any recent efforts to reduce fuels.
The parcel has a mix of juniper, overgrown sagebrush and bare land, making it similar to the type of habitat that carried the Cloverdale Fire, which burned two homes and prompted evacuation notices in Sisters earlier this summer, Keith said.
The land has also attracted some of Central Oregon’s largest homeless camps. Last year, the county closed off access roads as a way of deterring the more than 1,000 people who called the parcel home. Earlier this summer, officers from the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office formally evicted people from the area.
Lewis said the county has had problems with fires started by people camping in the area, including campfires that got out of control, fires started by vehicles idling on dry grass and at least one arson attempt.
The homeless population has shrunk significantly since the evictions, Lewis said, adding that the county maintains a presence in the area to deter campers. Removing brush and limbing trees increases visibility, which could also make it less likely that people will commit crimes, he said.
“If people are going to be seen doing something illegal, they’re typically not going to do it there,” Lewis said.
The cost of fuel reduction varies depending on the terrain, but Keith speculated that the grant could allow the county to remove brush and limb trees from nearly 1,000 acres of land from the parcel near Redmond and other county-owned parcels scattered throughout the region.
The grant program is less competitive than many federal programs, and the project could begin by 2020, Keith said.
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