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Cass Cornwell had hoped the home she shared with her sister had survived the Almeda fire that ripped through Jackson County in southern Oregon in September 2020.
But upon returning to her Phoenix neighborhood the day after evacuating, she was devastated by what she saw. “We could see that our neighborhood was completely gone,” says Cornwell, 52, her voice breaking. “We could see the stop sign all the way a block away because there [were] no homes in the way anymore.”
Every year, hundreds of wildfires burn in Oregon, fueled in part by warmer summer temperatures and drought. The Almeda fire was one of the state’s most destructive, swiftly destroying more than 2,400 homes.
This year, the growth of vegetation from the long, wet winter has increased the threat. “That’s all just fresh fuel for a wildfire to use,” says Jessica Prakke, a public affairs official with the Oregon Department of Forestry.
With wildfire season underway, AARP is joining with state forestry and emergency management officials to urge residents to take steps to protect their homes and to be ready to evacuate.
That starts with “hardening” homes by using siding and roofing materials that resist ignition, installing fire-resistant windows, and fixing vents and eaves to block embers. Beyond that, create a buffer around homes by keeping flammable plants at least 5 feet away, use gravel instead of mulch in landscaping, and clear debris and dead vegetation from properties.
Groups aim to share efforts
Cornwell says she and her sister used state grant money to help pay for fire-resistant features when they rebuilt their home, including concrete siding, a roof that discourages ember intrusion and concrete exterior walkways.
Neighbors can also work together to reduce the wildfire risk. The National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise USA program provides a way for neighbors to collectively reduce their community’s risk, says Firewise USA Program Manager Megan Fitzgerald-McGowan. Firewise USA gives recognition to communities that meet a set of voluntary criteria each year.
Oregon has about 260 active Firewise communities — 68 in Jackson County alone. “There’s a lot of really good work being done there,” Fitzgerald-McGowan says.
After the Almeda fire, Ashland resident Tucker Teutsch, 47, founded the nonprofit Firebrand Resiliency Collective to help communities navigate recovery and rebuilding. AARP Oregon donated $10,000 to the group. Now, the collective is focusing on preparedness and helping neighbors connect to make plans for mutual assistance and evacuations.
Creating those networks is essential, Teutsch says, because “we can’t rely on our local fire department to get everybody out or save everybody or everything.”
The Oregon Department of Emergency Management recommends three steps: Be informed, make a plan for communication and evacuation, and compile a go-kit of essential supplies. When packing a go-kit, public affairs officer Chris Crabb says to remember the six Ps: people and pets; prescriptions; phones and personal computers; plastic, such as ATM and credit cards; papers, including IDs, insurance policies, financial records and property deeds; and pictures and other irreplaceable memorabilia.
Teutsch (whose home was spared in the Almeda fire) also recommends residents video their home’s contents. Having that after a fire means “you’re going to be 95 percent prepared for the horror that is navigating an insurance claim,” he says.
For more tips on preparing for wildfire season, go to aarp.org/ORPrepare.
Julie Rasicot is a writer in Silver Spring, Maryland.
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