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In a time of increasing wildfire activity, Oregon State University Extension Service has implemented a new statewide fire program to help facilitate forest and range management plans, as well as create a healthy respect of fire through education and outreach efforts.

The program, led by the OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension Program and the College of Forestry, focuses on creating opportunities for landowners by building partnerships.

“You can think of the fire program team as ‘boundary spanners,’” said Carrie Berger, associate program leader for the Forestry & Natural Resources Extension Program. “The team will work to build those important partnerships that are so crucial to mitigating Oregon’s risk of catastrophic wildfire.”

With funding allocated by the Oregon Legislature, the fire program will hire a director, a state fire specialist, and six regional fire specialists. The specialists will be strategically placed in areas of greatest risk and need as the growing program expands the impact of current efforts and builds on existing partnerships.

“Over the last year, advances in the fire program have assisted landscape-scale progress in Lake and Klamath counties, where OSU Extension is working with partners to create consistent land management plans for private landowners and creating an economy of scale to make a positive difference on the ground,” Berger said. “As a result, 60,000 to 70,000 acres on both private and public lands have been treated to lessen fire risk by reducing fuel loads, improving forest health and restoring wildlife habitat. Other efforts have focused on defensible space treatments across ownership boundaries. Benefits are being realized for ecosystems, communities and economies.”

While Oregon didn’t see much fire this year, in 2018 Oregon’s cost to fight wildfires hit a record high of $514 million with over 800,000 acres burned.

“If we can prioritize where need is the greatest in the state and come up with a diagnosis of what needs to be done, we can come up with a prescription of management treatments. That’s where we’re headed,” said Daniel Leavell, OSU’s Extension forester who has over 40 years of fire experience.

Fuels in forests, woodlands and ranges have built up in the last 100 years due to fire suppression, Leavell noted. Fires start sooner and burn hotter with drier weather. More homes are located on the edges and middle of forests and woodlands that used to be remote areas.

Homes are built in greater numbers and higher densities than ever before. These boxes of fuel are filled with synthetic materials that also burn hotter.

“We used to have 30 minutes to respond to a house fire,” Leavell said. “Now with synthetics, laminates and artificial composites throughout homes, we have three. We need to be prepared for that.

“In addition to partnership building, education is essential to prepare landowners, land managers, emergency responders, policy makers, educators and the public to work together to plan for wildfire as the threat continues to climb. We’re trying to shift attitudes to be more proactive than reactive.”

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