Bend and its surrounding communities carry the fourth-highest risk of being affected by wildfire in Oregon, according to a recent report commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service.
The report evaluated 100 communities in Oregon and Washington that carry the highest risk of wildfire, based on a series of simulations that measure fire risk across the region.
According to the study, areas around Bend have a relatively low overall risk of significant wildfire damage, but so many homes carry at least a small risk of fire damage that it pushed the city to fourth on the list of Oregon cities, as well as eighth across the entire region.
“Fire is not all that likely to visit any individual structure in Bend, but there are a lot of structures,” said Joe Scott, principal wildfire analyst for Pyrologix, the Montana-based firm that co-authored the study.
Elsewhere in Central Oregon, Warm Springs ranked fifth on the list of Oregon communities and Redmond came in seventh. Prineville, Terrebonne, Tumalo and Sisters also appeared in the top 25 Oregon cities at the greatest risk of fire damage. Merlin, an unincorporated community in Josephine County, topped the list of Oregon communities, followed by Redwood and Medford.
Scott said the report is part of a larger, yearslong assessment of wildfire risk in Oregon and beyond, designed to increase awareness about which areas of the Pacific Northwest stand to be heavily impacted by fires. Rick Stratton, a fire analyst for the Forest Service based in Missoula, Montana, and a co-author of the study, added that the study was among the first that incorporated data from a mix of agencies across such a wide swath of land.
In order to determine fire risk, Scott said Pyrologix ran 10,000 or more simulations of wildfire, based on historic climate and terrain data, to map the areas of the region most prone to fires. In Oregon, the highest concentration of fire risk can be found north of Bend, as well as the southeast, southwest and far northwest corners of the state, according to the report.
From there, Scott said, the project layered over data on housing density to show how many homes within a 45-minute drive from a city or town could hypothetically expect to see fire impacts. He noted that all homes built on land covered by grass, shrubs, trees and other flammable plants outside of urban cores carried at least a small risk of wildfire damage.
Stratton said the annual burn probability — the cumulative likelihood that an area will burn — is relatively low in Bend, due in part to the high concentration of federal firefighting resources in the region.
“Very few communities have what Bend has,” Stratton said.
However, the region, which includes rural subdivisions outside of the city’s footprint, including communities like Sunriver, has lots of homes in harm’s way. The study notes more than 41,000 homes within Bend’s footprint that carry some risk of wildfire exposure.
Stratton said that the goals of the study were twofold: raise awareness among individuals living in wildfire-prone areas, and provide a road map for federal and state agencies to allocate fire-prevention funding to the communities that need it most.
The report concludes that wildfire danger in the Pacific Northwest is heavily concentrated in a relatively small handful of cities and towns. In Oregon, the 50 most-exposed communities include only 19 percent of the homes on or near burnable land, but include 80 percent of the state’s cumulative exposure to fire.
“The communities that are exposed can be really exposed,” Scott added.
Stratton said he’s hopeful that the study can guide zoning changes at the state and community level, while making sure state and federal grants aimed at combating fire danger on public and private land. Ideally, Stratton said, personal, local, state and federal fire prevention efforts would all work together, creating a series of buffers that dramatically lower the risk of a deadly fire.
“We want to get this message out to people,” he said. “We want people thinking about this stuff.”
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