OSU Created Fire Hazard, Refuses to Act

Corvallis resident Steve Cook recently reached out to the Advocate, asking us to look into an ongoing problem he’s been having with Oregon State University.

Cook lives on the edge of the MacDonald Research Forest, next to the Oak Creek Dimple Hill Trailhead. This zone is a Wildland Urban Interface, an area that, as Benton County puts it, “poses tremendous risks to life, property, and infrastructure in associated communities and is one of the most dangerous and complicated situations firefighters face.”

Cook has a Ph.D. in Forestry and studied these Wildland Urban Interfaces as part of his doctoral thesis. He also taught Sustainability classes at OSU for a number of years.

Given that the trailhead is on OSU property and sees significant traffic, one would think the university would be maintaining that area in order to reduce the risk of fire. This is not the case. Cook invited me out to his property to see for myself the fire hazard OSU has left next to his barn.

The half-acre of land that stands between the forest proper and Cook’s property is a brittle jungle of invasive weeds and dry grass. The teasel, now dead and dry, stands close to six feet tall.

Cook walked me along a strip of cropped grass about 10 feet wide which stood between his fence and the weeds. We walked to the trailhead’s small parking lot, taking note of the massive oak tree growing right next to one of the research station buildings, the leaf litter on its roof, and the dying rhododendron bushes crowded up against the side of the house. Even in the parking lot, the brush was close enough to the cars there was barely a foot of room between the front bumpers and the leaves.

It was, in short, a mess. The fact that the trailhead is busy at all hours is just the accelerant on this powder keg of a cake. It would take one careless cigarette butt to light the whole place up. This is bad not only for Cook’s property, but for all the residents of Tanager, Skillings, and Oak Creek. It’s a bigger issue than one family’s barn.

A Lack of Response

Cook has reached out to OSU on multiple occasions, asking them to deal with the fire hazard growing on their land.

In 2017, Cook and his wife cleared brush away from the north side along their side of the property line, assuming OSU would do the same. OSU did nothing.

In 2018, Cook cut down some of the small trees and removed the low branches between their house and the OSU boundary, again to reduce fire risk. OSU did nothing.

By this time, Cook installed glass windows in the north side of his barn to keep potential embers from blowing in and catching the building on fire, in addition to a rainwater collecting system, hoses, and a high-pressure fire pump.

In 2019, Cook met with the OSU Research Forest Manager to discuss defensible space and the lack of precautions taken around the Oak Creek Research Station. OSU finally cleaned out the brush in the area, as well as clearing out most of the trees. At that point, Cook warned the manager that doing so would lead to flammable and invasive weeds taking over the area unless there was ongoing maintenance.

Overgrowth Arrives

In 2020, that cleared land was overgrown with invasive weeds. A strip was cleared along the boundary line, but no other action was taken by OSU. In May 2021, the weeds reached between three-and-five feet in height.

Cook contacted the Forest Manager again, asking him to cut the weeds. Again, OSU did nothing.

In July 2021, Cook contacted the OSU Fire Officer and asked him to evaluate the half-acre of weeds. He told Cook to contact the Forest Manager who sprayed the area with herbicides but did not cut down the weeds, leaving behind dead grasses. That same month, a fire break was cut into the dry weeds, a semi-circle of dubious effectiveness which left the dried weeds strewn on the ground.

And Today

Nothing has been done to mitigate the fire hazard since then, though Cook sent an exasperated email to Tom DeLuca, the head of OSU’s College of Forestry.

DeLuca replied in a manner Cook found smug and condescending, and which in no way acknowledged the fire hazard. DeLuca said that “under the right conditions, any and all forests could burn…” ignoring the fact that dry brush and dead weeds are more flammable than a damp tree.

“You can suggest that it is the fault of the College, but it is so much more complicated than that and I think you know that,” DeLuca wrote. “People wanting to move up into the woods is part of the reality we face today at the intersection of climate change, fire regimes, and social development. Sort of like those folks that live in a flood plain and

expect their house to never flood and claim it is the responsibility of the government to protect their house.”

DeLuca also compared Cook’s email to his previous criticism of OSU’s management of the McDonald-Dunn Research forest, writing, “Maintenance of the [MD] forest is paid for by the annual harvest, that includes fuel reduction work that is done on the perimeter of the forest in areas that are close to homes. So when you tell us to stop harvesting timber, you are asking for less service and access on the forest.”

Cook has been opposed to OSU’s management of its forests. However, that has nothing to do with the clear fire hazard growing next to his house.

Recently, Cook received an email from the Director of College of Forestry Research Forests, Stephen Fitzgerald, saying, “At this time, we do not anticipate doing additional fuel reduction work next to your property.” Fitzgerald also said that they had not asked anyone from the Oregon Department of Forestry to assess the site, adding that his expertise is enough. Corvallis’ Fire Code regarding Wildland Urban Interfaces is the same as the Oregon Fire Code, which states in section 304.1.2 that “weeds, grass, vines or other growth that is capable of being ignited and endangering property, shall be cut down and removed by the owner or occupant of the premises. Vegetation clearance requirements in urban-wildland interface areas shall be in accordance with the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code.”

The School Responds

When we reached out to OSU for comment, Steve Clark said over the phone, “We take both his [Cook’s] comments and fire safety very seriously. We disagree with his characterization of what OSU measures are and how they are contributing to safety and protection.”

In Cook’s words, “it would have taken two guys with weed whackers an hour to clear the area out.” Yet, he’s certain OSU won’t listen to him because he disagrees with their management of the Mac Forest.

Is OSU putting all the people living near the Oak Creek Dimple Hill Trailhead at risk because of a disagreement they have with one man?

By Jalen Todd