A Proactive Approach to Metropolitan Wildfire Risk 3

By Chris Barney

From the PBI Performance Products, Inc. e-Newsletter, sponsored by

Read Part 2.

Forest Park

Forest Park is truly Portland's crown jewel. Its size and landscape, typical of the Northwest region, offers numerous opportunities to enjoy the outdoors for Portland residents and their regional neighbors. Originally drawn in as part of a city parks plan by the Olmstead Brothers landscape architecture firm, the 5,000-acre-park was officially dedicated in 1948.3 Historically, the area was dominated by a coniferous forest and suffered three stand-replacing forest fires recorded through the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, burning more than 4,000 acres4 and 11 known structures.5 The steep terrain, coupled with the regional Foehn winds that occur during the late summer, still present a situation that warrants concern and attention.

Because of the park's popularity, interest in any project potentially advocating change is always high. Although significant lessons were learned from the previous processes at Powell Butte and the Willamette Bluff, the scale of the Park demanded a higher level of coordination. In an effort to prepare for the public scrutiny, the Project Management Team, consultants, and TAC began examining Forest Park's issues several months prior to involving the CAC. The intent was not to establish desired solutions for the different wildfire issues but to better understand the scope of the issues so that we could prepare for the citizen-involvement process.

Once the needed preparation was completed, Forest Park's CAC was introduced to the process. The citizens invited to participate on the CAC were neighbors of the park, leaders of park advocacy groups, and business leaders from the surrounding area. Because of the previous work completed at the other sites in Portland, the intent and application of methods were well understood.

After discussion and a tour of the Park (Photo 5), the CAC expressed several concerns : the possibility of fire spreading from the forest to their homes, especially resulting from one of the many homeless encampments within the park, and the effect on wildlife stemming from any work performed to mitigate such a fire threat. Many of the park neighbors had moved to their homes decades earlier for its woodsy feel, isolation, and interaction with wildlife. The thought of losing this natural appeal made many skeptical of the project.

(5) Photo by Marcia Sinclair. Click to enlarge

Discussions during the site tour and a mapping exercise to understand the vegetation types of the park led all to realize that there was a lesser overall fire potential than had been previously determined. Because of forest succession, the century's earlier large fires, and logging operations over the previous century, conifers now only occupy stands totaling 30 percent of the Park. The dominance of hardwoods and mixed ceciduous/coniferous stands would strongly inhibit any large fire, such as those that occurred in the early and mid-1900s.

And certain terrain areas and aspects would prove helpful in creating pockets with higher fuel moistures and relative humidyities, thereby slowing or minimizing any surface fire. This was a welcomed realization, since it offered some relief from the fear of a large fire incident and allowed the project to narrow its scope and focus on specific areas that still posed a threat.

Although the mapping exercises did offer this new view of Forest Park's wildfire potential, it also focused efforts on the roughly 1,500 acres of coniferous trees and surface vegetation that, if caught in a fire, would seriously threaten those homes directly upslope. Any fire in these areas would challenge Portland Fire & Rescue because of their isolation and, although a rare occurrence, the potential for large fire spread. Instead of just dealing with these fires if they occurred, the intent was to be proactive and minimize the chance of such a fire occurring in the first place. To do so, we took two approaches: Create a long-term plan to shift the Park vegetation landscape toward one that would further mitigate the wildfire potential, and introduce the nationally established ideas of "defensible spacing" around homes.

As was seen during the development of Powell Butte's desired future condition, such a long-term plan helps to identify the steps that can be taken in the immediate future ro contribute to the overall, long-term intent of reducing wildfire conditions. After further discussions among the consultants, TAC, and CAC developed a plan that would reduce fire potential, aid in invasive weed eradication, and promote wildlife diversity.

The concept of "defensive spacing," creating a buffer zone around structures by reducing flammable materials, is not new and has always been seen by Portland Fire & Rescue as part of the answer to its urban wildfire interface. But there were legal hurdles that had always limited their efforts to encourage homeowners to approve such ideas. In 1994, Portland enacted Environmental Zoning "to protect resources and functional values that have been identified by the City as providing benefits to the public."6 This code restricts all alterations to the natural landscape within the designated "E-Zone" without a permit.7 Because of this restriction, any advocating for defensible spacing on private property within this E-Zone by Portland Fire would be in violation of the city's own code, and any discussion to effect changes to this city code had met with little progress.

This hurdle had been anticipated and planned for several months prior, during the discussions between project managers, consultants, and the TAC. To foster discussion about possible zoning changes, Portland city planners were invited to the discussion with CAC members about the need for defensible space and its conflict with current zoning codes. The planners warmly received these new ideas, resulting in new discussions and a strong likelihood of code changes within the near future. This new success can be directly attributed to the involvement of citizens in the discussion for increased wildfire risk reduction near residential areas.

After following the same process as for the previous two sites, the TAC and CAC, through many discussions, arrived at a long-term desired future condition for Forest Park. From this ultimate goal, specific projects were identified to begin meeting the need for wildfire mitigation (at right). Because of the scope and limited funding of the remaining grant monies, high priority was placed on those areas of the park with the greatest potential for fire--the neighboring commercial/industrial businesses, power line right-of-ways, and the most threatened homes. Suggested projects include a focus on defensible space creation (to be allowed within the near future), ladder fuel removal, and isolated prescriptive burning to reduce non-native surface fuels.

Wildfire is not a main concern for Portland Fire & Rescue, an urban fire department, as is true for many cities. The frequency of wildfire incidents does not dictate that the same time and training resources be spent on wildfire as compared to structure fires, vehicular incidents, or emergency medicine. But, in the extreme event of a larger wildfire in one of the urban green spaces, where dry conditions and weather events have created a fire risk to which Portland Fire & Rescue is unaccustomed, the department's typical reactive response, which is very effective for most types of incidents, could be ineffective and unsafe in these circumstances.

Everyone involved in this Wildfire Fuels Reduction project admit that each step has provided many lessons learned. Portland is not the only large metropolitan area in the country that responds to wildfires, but there are few larger cities that take such a proactive approach to wildfire planning within their city limits. The project results for each site have provided all city agencies with a better, more integrated plan for future wildfire mitigation work.

An added benefit of this in-depth look at wildfire prevention was Portland Fire & Rescue's assessment of its true capabilities for wildfire response. All participants saw this as a natural next step in the assessment process, which will be completed by Summer 2009. We will use the same format to make the assessment as objective as possible: outside technical experts, ranging from wildfire specialists to emergency preparedness officials, will gather to ask questions, promote discussion within the fire department, and offer suggestions. With the increasing frequency of and potential for wildfires in and around our region, a constructive discussion among the involved city officials will help clarify our response.

In an effort to limit Portland (OR) Fire & Rescue's future exposure to a possible wildfire, the best plan is to limit the possibility that an event will happen in the first place. This has been the intention of the FEMA's Wildfire Fuels Reduction project from the beginning. The plans developed for each site will help guide future work and greatly assist in many ways: limiting the potential for larger wildfires tthat would be difficult to handle with our fire resources and which would cause greater threat and harm to the public; assisting in the emergency response to smaller grass fires that tend to happen more frequently each summer; and improving the ecological characteristics of the city's parks and green spaces.

This forward thinking has necessitated some alteration of the "look" of the city's parks. But involving the public from the start has helped all involved better understand what the future vision is and secure the public's support for the Project's work because their voice has been heard. These successes are all part of a proactive willingness to cooperate and communicate between city agencies and the public before "the Big One" hits.


1. www.fema.gov/plan/mitplanning/DMA.shtm/.
2. City of Portland (OR) City Charter 3.13.
3. www.portlandonline.com/parks/finder/index.cfm?action=ViewPark&PropertyID=127&searchtext=Forest%20Park/.
4. "Forest Fire - Northwest Hills,, Report of Maintenance Crews - Bureau of Public Works, William Morris, USFS Forester, August 1951/.
5.Kuhn. David Malcolm. "Fuel Model Development and Fire Simulation Analysis in the Wildland-Urban Interface: The Case Study of Forest Park, Portland, Oregon."
6. City of Portland Title 33.430.010 Zoning Code.
7. City of Portland Title 33.430.080 Zoning Code.

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Chris Barney started with Portland (OR) Fire & Rescue in 2003; he is a firefighter in Engine/Squad-24. Before that, he worked for South Metro (CO) Fire & Rescue and throughout the Rocky Mountain Region as a wildland firefighter.

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