Julia Shumway
The Bulletin

A wide-ranging public lands bill signed Tuesday by President Donald Trump includes a provision that would protect Crooked River Ranch from wildfire risks.

The new law combines more than 100 separate bills, including one sponsored by Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, that would exclude 688 acres of public land from the Deschutes Canyon-Steelhead Falls Wilderness Study Area. That change will let forest managers thin juniper trees near the edge of Crooked River Ranch, a subdivision with about 5,500 residents.

Stu Steinberg, vice president of the Crooked River Ranch board, welcomed the change. It means ranch residents can work with the federal Bureau of Land Management — which manages the land — and other entities to properly manage land and minimize the risk of fire spreading, he said.

“We’re gonna get the appropriate amount of protection from a potential wildfire,” Steinberg said. “We don’t want to end up like Paradise, California.”

Fires like last year’s Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and burned 153,336 acres in Northern California, have highlighted the need for fire protection in Crooked River Ranch.

The area opened as a destination resort in 1972 but has become a residential subdivision covering about 10,000 acres. Some of the property in the area is next to the former edge of the wilderness area, creating a risk that fires could spread from the wilderness to residential property.

Until November, there was only one paved road into and out of Crooked River Ranch, creating challenges if the residents needed to evacuate for fire.

Steinberg said there have been two relatively small fires in the area since he moved to Crooked River Ranch in 1997. Both were extinguished before they could cause much damage.

“The reality is that either one of these could have been really disastrous but for the quick acting of our fire district,” he said.

Steinberg remembers watching another fire that burned on the other side of a river shortly after he moved to the area. The fire didn’t make it across, but he watched old-growth pine trees explode as the sap in the trees reached a boiling point.

“It was like watching a B-52 strike like I saw a few of in Vietnam,” he said.

Residents of Crooked River Ranch live with the possibility that every summer could be the one that brings a fire to their neighborhood. With the passage of the public lands bill and the opportunity for more fuel management, they hope they have less to fear.

“I think it just makes sense to deal with fuels reduction and fighting fires,” Crooked River Ranch board President Carl Harbour said.

It’s still important for property owners to do what they can to fireproof their own properties by creating buffers around their buildings and removing shrubs, grasses and low-hanging tree limbs, he said. The Crooked River Ranch association, meanwhile, has an obligation to do the same for common areas, he said.

In a statement, Walden said he hoped the Bureau of Land Management would prioritize fuels reduction around Crooked River Ranch as soon as possible.

“With another wildfire season fast approaching, today is about protecting lives in Central Oregon,” he said. “For more than 5,000 people living at Crooked River Ranch, this critical public safety measure will reduce the threat of wildfire that has surrounded their homes for far too long.”

Amendments to Walden’s legislation introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, clarify that the land should be managed to improve forest health and fire resiliency and that off-road motor vehicles are not allowed on the 688 acres that were removed from the wilderness area. That’s an important amendment to minimize the risk of fires sparked by vehicles, Steinberg said. He rides horses in the area regularly, and he said he once saw a guy driving with a muffler dragging on the forest floor creating sparks.

The Oregon Natural Desert Association, which criticized Walden’s original proposal because it wanted a more complete solution to wildfire danger, also welcomed Wyden’s amendments, Public Lands Coordinator Gena Goodman-Campbell said.

“We would like to see a more comprehensive approach,” she said. “This one piece of it is on the way to getting done.”

The public lands bill signed Tuesday also includes parts of the Oregon Wildlands Act sponsored by Wyden and Sen. Jeff Merkley. Among other things, it designates 30,000 acres in the Oregon Coast Range as the Devil’s Staircase Wilderness, prohibits mining and mineral extraction on the Chetco River and adds 250 more miles of rivers and streams to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

“There’s a lot to celebrate in there,” Goodman-Campbell said.

— Reporter: 541-633-2160; jshumway@bendbulletin.com