La Pine Fire checking wildfire readiness of homes in district

La Pine Fire checking wildfire readiness of homes in district

17 August 2014

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USA — Just by glancing at William Norquist’s home on Downey Road, firefighter Cris Berthelsen knew that the house was ready should a wildfire strike.

There’s plenty of space between the home and the trees, the ground around it is covered either by lawn or dirt and there’s no clutter such as pine needles to fuel a fire. Protecting the home in case of wildfire is an ongoing project for Norquist, who has had the place for about five years.

“My backyard used to be forest,” said Norquist, who with the help of family cleared the trees closest to the home. “…It’s been coming together.”

The La Pine Rural Fire Protection District is in the process of evaluating the homes around the 110-square-mile district, covering La Pine, Spring River and numerous neighborhoods tucked into the woods of southern Deschutes County and northern Klamath County. Berthelsen and district officials are glad when they see homes like Norquist’s house.

 Berthelsen is tasked with the assessments. He started cruising the district and examining homes at the beginning of July and will be doing so the rest of the summer. The goal is to complete as many assessments of the about 7,500 homes in the district as possible. In about two hours Thursday, he checked out nearly 20 homes.

Using an app on his cellphone, Berthelsen plugs in the information he’s collecting into a database.

“It ends up being a five-minute assessment,” he said.

The program crunches the data Berthelsen enters and determines a color dot to mark on an interactive map. Three colors quickly show firefighters how the homes rate.

“Green is good, yellow is moderate and red is not so hot,” Berthelsen said. Most of the homes he’s rated so far fall into the moderate category. When he saw Norquist’s home he said, “There’s an obvious green.” He is just gathering information, not trying to enforce any codes.

Not everyone who sees Berthelsen when he is out doing evaluations stops to talk with him. Those who do have typically been nice and wonder whether he is there to warn them of a nearby wildfire.

The app and database started with a pilot program by the Keno Rural Fire Protection District in Klamath County near Klamath Falls, said Mike Supkis, chief at the La Pine Rural Fire Protection District. Firefighters in La Pine are adding to the growing database in an expansion of the pilot project. The Special Districts Association of Oregon, which supports fire, road and other special districts around the state, gave the La Pine district a $3,000 grant to cover the summertime project.

Once compiled, the information could be valuable in the case of a wildfire, particularly if fire crews fighting a fire threatening homes in the district aren’t familiar with the neighborhood.

“Those folks can get a real feel for the local community by sifting through the database right at their fingertips,” Supkis said.

Fire departments have long been doing assessments of homes in terms of wildfire readiness. The Keno district collected extensive data about homes around Klamath County a decade ago, but for years the information was only accessible during a fire if a mapping expert was there, said Chief John Ketchum of the Keno Rural Fire Protection District.

Over the past couple of years, the district, using a $900,000 grant from the county, has worked on ways to make data more available to firefighters. The cloud-based system makes data accessible from smartphones, tablets and computers.

“It lets us understand where the structures are and what vulnerabilities we have,” Ketchum said.

Along with La Pine, he said, fire departments in Jackson and Josephine counties are now collecting information and adding it to the database. He’d like to eventually see information in it for homes around the state. In the case of a wildfire, firefighters may travel around the state to help protect homes.

“We would love to have good data all over the place where (we) go,” Ketchum said.

Depending how the project goes in the La Pine district, it could spread to other Central Oregon fire districts and departments.

“I would love to see it take off around Deschutes County,” said Alison Green, program director for Project Wildfire, a group started by Deschutes County that focuses on preparing communities for wildfire.

But the benefits of the database aren’t just for firefighters.

“It can be a tool, too, for homeowners to see how professional firefighters are seeing their home now, before an emergency,” Supkis said.

By going to and clicking on the “My Risk: Go to the Map” link, people whose homes have been assessed in the La Pine fire distinct can see how they did. They can also see what they could do to improve their rating. The website also allows them to request a new assessment if they’ve made improvements around their house.

The assessment evaluates a home and surrounding property for about 50 different factors.

Berthelsen looks at the layout of the driveway, what material it is made of and whether vegetation crowds it — all while thinking of whether a fire engine could come in and out of the driveway easily.

He looks at the trees around the property, particularly to see how thick the stand is and how close trees are to the house.

He looks at the ground around the home to see whether it is a covered by lawn, dirt, wild grasses or pine needles.

He checks out what materials are used in the siding and roof.

There even is an evaluation for animals, which could pose a risk to firefighters responding to a wildfire.

If there’s a “Beware of dog” sign out front of a home, Berthelsen does his assessment from the road.

“I don’t want to mess with dogs,” he said.

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