Forecasters are predicting significant fire potential to be above normal for portions of central Oregon April through June and expanding into southwest Oregon in July. With the recent wildfires in 2020 and 2021, local concerns have escalated and many neighborhood residents have taken action, coordinating with the city, to plan ahead.
Timberhill will be participating in a fire evacuation drill this year, having had a very close call in 2014 when some teens caused a fire in an open area in Chip Ross Park. One result of that fire was the residents realizing they have evacuation issues.
Pam Burnor, a Timberhill resident, reached out to Fire Emergency Planning Manager Dave Busby after learning about the evacuation drills last year. “Fire crews were not able to easily access the fire site during the 2014 fire, partly due to the people trying to leave,” said Burnor.
Dana Rason, in a letter to the city about an upcoming development in Timberhill, wrote about the 2014 Chip Ross fire issues, saying in part: “The area residents were all wondering what was going on and if they should flee their homes, no one in command was communicating about this event with area residents, and what 1000s of area residents should do in this emergency, until this slope driven fast moving fire was contained.”
Unlike the neighborhoods in past years’ tests, Timberhill – with 11 Home Owner Associations – did not have the leadership structure in place to participate, but with Burnor’s lead there is now a lot of effort by the neighborhood to face their issues.
“There’s no real egress,” said Burnor. “Timberhill is a mixed housing neighborhood made up of over 40 dead ends, cul de sacs and flag lot drives, specifically designed to impede the flow of traffic…At least half of the residents east of the greenway –plus Senior housing, apartments, businesses and townhomes nearer the bottom of the community will need to evacuate via 29th, to Walnut.”
Corvallis Fire Chief Ben Janes explained his department’s view about egress situations in written testimony concerning The Preserve development: “Using the areas around Timberhill for example, once Kings Blvd is completed, the fire engines at Fire Station 3, 1310 NW Circle Blvd., will no longer need to go all the way to 29thStreet, and then start the long climb up 29thas they navigate speed bumps along the way. Those engines will now be able to drive directly up the Kings Blvd extension. The extension will have a lower hill grade, no speed bumps, and a more direct route to the top of 29thStreet. The completion of Kings Blvd also provides a second evacuation route to the homes in that area. In this instance, development will help us to reduce our response times and provide additional evacuation routes.”
Busby discussed the other exits from the area that could be used – such as NW Glenridge Dr, NW Princess, and NW Aspen – as well as concerns he has with people using the Oregon State University McDonald Forest exits. Since Mac Forest is a research forest, one cannot predict when they are logging and when trucks may block the roads, or what condition the road will be in. Also, one little car that can’t handle the rough road may hold up a line of other cars. He said, “It’s important people think about this issue and have plans in place.”
Busby said the Timberhill drill, as part of the Community Evacuation Exercise, is scheduled for May.
New Development Helped Raise Awareness
Currently, Jim Boeder is going through the process of approvals for land to be developed for future housing at the top of Timberhill in an area he named “The Preserve.” In his documents and presentations to City Planners and City Council, Boeder addressed fire mitigation concerns when he showed plans to add fire hydrants, build a fire truck turn-around on NW Bunting Dr – which is not adjacent to his property, has removed the invasive brush, managed the oak savannah, and created the street extension for a second escape route for current residents on NW Goldfinch Dr.
A neighborhood group, called Saving Open Space (S.O.S.), has been opposing this development citing one of their reasons to be it “exacerbates lack of adequate emergency evacuation routes.”
While covering that story, Burnor brought up her concerns for wildfire potential that brought to light that the issue is not so much the proposed development, but the bigger issue of lack of neighborhood preparedness. Residents expressed their concerns about wildfires and escape routes during a council meeting on the land development at the end of March.
While it won’t be known for a while if the protesters can reach their goal of stopping the development, one positive result is getting the neighborhood to coalesce and take action for creating and testing a fire evacuation plan.
Fire Chief Janes says that having the research forest nearby is helpful, saying, “Our Community Members that live near the UGB [Urban Growth Boundary] on the North and West parts of town are fortunate in that many of those areas border Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) lands. I can’t speak for ODF, or for all of the programs that they provide, but I can tell you that we partner with them anytime there is an incident that takes place near our protection lines. Additionally, we have a mutual aid agreement with them to use their resources even if a potential fire is not directly on or threatening their protected lands.”
Fire Emergency Planning
In 2018, Busby was hired as Corvallis’ first full-time Fire Emergency Planning Manager. Even as he was recovering from surgery, he wanted to sit down with us and talk planning. “The job doesn’t stop just because I’m out,” he explained. He has a passion for the mission – besides years in the Navy in emergency management, he lived through the 2010 Cedar Fire, evacuating his family and animals from his former home in the San Diego area.
In 2019, he worked with the Skyline West neighborhood on an evacuation drill. Last June saw nine neighborhoods tested, including Skyline West, Grand Oaks, Oak Creek and CoHo Ecovillage.
“Evacuation is a big part of the city’s fire emergency plans,” said Busby. “We had very good participation, with around 460 people involved” described Busby about those tests. This May will be another round of drills, this time including Timberhill.
The neighborhoods already part of the tests have a leadership structure in place as well as participation in Firewise programs where residents are actively involved in wildfire risk reduction. Busby was impressed with the residents at CoHo Ecovillage, who designated a leader and team to the task, and have a very involved community. Busby plans to expand this exercise to more areas in the city.
“We at the Corvallis Fire Department (CFD) take all emergencies very seriously, including wildfires.” Janes said, “CFD and our partner agencies have a couple of systems in place to reduce the potential for wildland fires. At CFD we hire Fire Prevention Assistants every season and one of their tasks is to respond to weed and grass mitigation complaints. Property owners that allow their properties to become fire hazards are contacted, once CFD becomes aware of a potential issue, and a plan of action is laid out to mitigate the hazard.”
Fire Evacuation Drill Planning
Emergency preparedness officials in Corvallis and Benton County plan large-scale evacuation drills in partnership with neighborhood associations that express interest in gaining hands-on experience and helping emergency managers work through procedures that could be used in the event of a real evacuation. Participating neighborhoods prepare for the exercise by taking part in webinars with emergency management officials.
Busby is in direct communication with the neighborhood leaders from each area. Part of the leaders’ responsibility is to make sure all the residents are signed up for the mass communication systems to receive alerts from the city of Corvallis and Benton County.
Then residents are taken through the three evacuation steps: “Be Ready” – everything is packed and you have your animal plans in place; “Be Set” – things are in your vehicle and you’re ready to leave your home; and “Go” when you are told to leave.
Busby, based on his own experience with large animals, emphasized that animal owners need to make sure they have a pet plan. If you have large animals or disabled family members, you need to get ready earlier.
You Can Help Prevent Fires
Busby wants homeowners to be proactive in fire prevention. Besides participating in your neighborhood evacuation drills, signing up for local and county alert systems, and having a plan in place for you, your family and any animals, he believes there are simple measures you can take around your home.
The Firewise USA program helps educate residents on these tasks. Corvallis also provides information about easy steps to prevent outdoor fires:
Make certain house numbers are easy to find and clearly visible.
Trim tree branches away from the roof and driveway.
Store combustibles (wood pile, for example) at least 100 feet away from the house.
Keep the yard well trimmed and free of combustible debris.
Clean leaves and pine needles off of the roof and out of the gutters.
Maintain a non-combustible safety zone around the house by clearing, trimming, and removing all dry combustible vegetation within 30 feet of the structure.
“Corvallis is a beautiful city,” said Busby. “I don’t want anyone to go through what I lived through in southern California. I have my email and phone number on the city’s website so that I am available to help residents prepare for emergencies.”
Correction: Fire Chief Ben Jane’s comments were made in testimony during the council discussions of the development of The Preserve. In the original article, it was implied that we spoke directly to him.