LandWatch Leads on Protecting Bend from Wildfire in the WUI

The conditions for wildfire west of Bend make high levels of development extremely dangerous, which is why Central Oregon LandWatch has spent more than a decade advocating for more careful planning where the City of Bend and development meet forested areas.

Our successful negotiations with landowners have led to protections from wildfire on more than 1,500 acres in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) west of the City of Bend. Now, we are working to educate similar communities about how land use planning can be an effective tool for saving lives and property from catastrophic fire.

 

Wildland Urban interface

In 2018 the Camp Fire tore through the community of Paradise, California, killing 88 people and destroying thousands of homes.   Photo courtesy of Associated Press

In 2018 the Camp Fire tore through the community of Paradise, California, killing 88 people and destroying thousands of homes.

Photo courtesy of Associated Press

The wildland urban interface (WUI) is an area where human development meets wildlands. These areas are outside of urban centers, prone to wildfire, and usually distanced from infrastructure. WUIs can be a draw for visitors and residents because of their natural beauty and opportunity for recreational activities. Central Oregon has seen extraordinary growth in recent decades for similar reasons. However, this beauty comes at a high cost as communities like Paradise, CA recently experienced.

 

BEND IS VULNERABLE TO WILDFIRE

Longtime Central Oregon residents will remember the  Awbrey Hall fire , which  ripped through the forested areas west of Bend  and burned 16 houses in three hours in 1990. The fire started in early August on a ridge in Shevlin Park, crossed major roads and the Deschutes River to travel 6 miles and destroy a total of 22 homes in its wake.

Longtime Central Oregon residents will remember the Awbrey Hall fire, which ripped through the forested areas west of Bend and burned 16 houses in three hours in 1990. The fire started in early August on a ridge in Shevlin Park, crossed major roads and the Deschutes River to travel 6 miles and destroy a total of 22 homes in its wake.

More recently, the  Two Bulls Fire burned 6,908 acres  west of Bend, causing the evacuation of about 254 homes and around 635 people on the west side of Bend in June, 2014. It came  within three miles of the city and thankfully avoided catastrophic destruction due to favorable winds.

More recently, the Two Bulls Fire burned 6,908 acres west of Bend, causing the evacuation of about 254 homes and around 635 people on the west side of Bend in June, 2014. It came within three miles of the cityand thankfully avoided catastrophic destruction due to favorable winds.

Land Use Planning IS Essential to Wildfire Protection

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As development pressures grow in high-risk areas, we must consider every new development in the WUI carefully. Smart planning that takes wildfire risk into account will help avoid unnecessary loss of life and homes, risk to our health, and endangerment of firefighters.

For more than a decade, LandWatch has successfully blocked hundreds of acres of private land in Bend’s WUI from being developed at high densities. If we hadn’t been on the front lines, landowners would have been able to build close to five thousand new homes between Tumalo Creek and Skyline Ranch Rd. That level of development would not only destroy the last remaining links for the Tumalo Deer Winter Range, but would also create a tinderbox for wildfire to spread from the forest to the city. 

OUR LEGAL EFFORTS MADE ROOM TO NEGOTIATE THE WESTSIDE TRANSECT

Most of the land between Tumalo Creek and Skyline Ranch Road would have been developed at urban levels had it come in with the City of Bend’s 2009 Urban Growth Boundary proposal to expand the city by more than 8,400 acres.

Central Oregon LandWatch was the lead appellant against that proposal because of our concerns about wildlife habitat, wildfire, and the lack of analysis for how to use existing city lands more efficiently. The State of Oregon remanded that proposal, and the City’s recent successful UGB process had a much more robust public process.

That new public process opened up the opportunity for Central Oregon LandWatch to work with developers and landowners, which resulted in the Westside Transect (and a Conversation of the Year award). The transect approach means that more dense development is located closer to the core of the city where services and infrastructure are already available, and tapering density as the city grows outward toward natural features such as Tumalo Creek and the Deschutes National Forest.

While extreme weather-driven fire will still be a real threat to the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), the Westside Transect will help save lives and homes.Reduced density means there will be fewer people to evacuate in the event of a fire. More space between homes, firewise building codes, and landscaping requirements will reduce the risk of rapidly spreading wildfire.

 

Overview of WESTSIDE TRANSECT AREAS NEGOTIATED BY LANDWATCH:

  • Miller Tree Farm - The Tree Farm is located on 533 acres west of Bend's city limits in Deschutes County. The property is located off Skyliners Road bordered mostly by U.S. Forest Service land and on the west by the beloved Shevlin Park. The community will consist of 50, 2-acre homesites, with the remaining 80% of the property as dedicated open space. Learn about LandWatch’s February, 2016 settlement with Brooks Resources.

  • Westside & Shevlin UGB Expansion – Three tracts of land totaling 412 acres were brought into the Urban Growth Boundary in 2016, but have not yet been annexed into the City of Bend. LandWatch negotiated a maximum number of housing units allowed to be built in these areas (1157). Without this maximum, this area could have developed more than 5,000 new homes.

  • Deschutes County Westside Transect Zone – The fate of the proposed zone will be decided by the Deschutes County Board of Commissioners. It would apply to 717 acres that are in line to become part of the City of Bend in the next UGB expansion with the potential for 2,000 or more homes. The Westside Transect Zone would limit development to a maximum of 187 homes with strict fire requirements. This type of low-density is critical for firefighting and protection.

Development in the WUI

Wildfire can spread extremely quickly, and buildings that are not properly prepared are effective fuel for fires. Combined with the build up of brush and fuel in these areas, the spread of fire poses an immediate danger to those living there, as well as emergency responders tasked with the protection of these homes.

Climate change has created a new set of problems for residents of this zone, both humans and wildlife. Longer, dryer summers and earlier snowmelt create conditions that make fire containment and the protection of property very difficult.  Wildfire frequency and intensity have increased along with the number of homes in these areas. That combination can be treacherous and, as we have seen in past wildfire seasons, can often turn deadly.

Wildfire is not the only concerning aspect of the WUI. Development in wild areas can disrupt wildlife habitat and migration patterns. Forest and rangeland fragmentation has an enormous effect on the wildlife native to the area, and rapid disruption of their environment can be devastating to populations that rely on the established ecology. It is also common for landscaping to introduce non-native plants to the WUI, resulting in changing landscapes and the spread of vegetation that is not adapted to wildfire. Pets can introduce parasites native species are not adapted to, or outright kill native species that are integral to the ecosystem.

Help us create a more sustainable and resilient future

Tell your state representative that you support Oregon’s land use planning system because of its critical role in preventing dangerous levels of development in the WUI.