Wildfire is a grim fact of life in Sisters Country. Virtually every summer for the past two decades, we have seen our lives disrupted by encroaching conflagrations and dense smoke.

We cannot control the lightning storms that so often spark these blazes, nor drought conditions and the winds that drive them — but we can control how we prepare for and respond to them.

Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire District Chief Roger Johnson notes that there is a national strategy to cope with the massive wildfires that have especially plagued the American West — adapting communities to fire through prescribed burning to create buffers, crafting building codes to require more “hardened” homes, and improving emergency response, including evacuation notification.

“It’s a three-legged stool, is how people describe it,” he said.

But one of the most critical responsibilities in protecting homes from fire sits squarely on the shoulders of local residents.

Creating defensible space

The creation of a 30-foot buffer around your home is the single most important thing you can do to enhance your home’s chances of withstanding a fire. It gives firefighters a fighting chance to save your home.

Creating defensible space around your home doesn’t mean things can’t look nice — it means creating an area of at least 30 feet around the home where combustibles are kept cleared away, trees limbed back and landscaping crafted with plants that don’t readily ignite and carry fire. Simple things like moving your firewood stack away from your house, avoiding the use of bark mulch around the house and deck, and keeping juniper bushes from brushing up against structures can go a long way toward making your home more defensible. Keep your gutters cleared.

Steps to create defensible space and tips on fire-resistant landscaping may be found at www.projectwildfire.org/resources/.

Products are available to spray on your home that can enhance its resistance to fire. Those have to be applied well before any crisis develops and should be part of a program of defensibility and not a substitute for defensible space.

An important part of creating defensible space is ensuring that your home is accessible to firefighting equipment. Make sure your street numbers are visible from the road, and keep your driveway cleared 12 feet wide and 13 feet tall so that firetrucks can get in — and out — safely.

Chief Johnson pointed to the massively destructive fires that roared through Santiam Canyon and McKenzie Canyon last September. The only homes that survived were ones that had some buffer around them.

“A lot of it is that when fires like these come through communities, it’s a snowstorm of embers,” he said.

The fewer combustible places there are for those embers to fall upon, the better chance your home has of surviving, even in the midst of an unstoppable firestorm.

Doug Green, the Sisters District’s community risk and fire safety manager notes that creating defensible space at your home enhances the safety of others as well.

“It’s also the thing to do to be a good neighbor,” he said.

When a home burns, it throws out even more embers than the trees and brush do, and once a fire starts roaring through a neighborhood, it gains momentum.

And that raises another point that Green and Chief Johnson emphasize: Defensible space is not merely a matter for those living on the fringes of the forest. In the Labor Day fires, 38 percent of the homes lost were in incorporated areas — towns and cities. A wildfire can readily become an urban conflagration.

Defensible space and fire preparation are responsibilities for everyone who lives in Sisters Country.

Be ready to evacuate NOW

Over the past 20 years of fires, Sisters residents have gotten used to planned, deliberate evacuations, with trigger points predetermined and notices sent out, along with door-to-door notification. Residents feel like they have time. Recent events have shown that evacuations don’t always happen that way. When an overheated electrical cord to a travel trailer started a fire in the area of Rabbitbrush Lane east of Sisters on August 11, 2018, the situation got dire very, very quickly. The neighborhood had to be evacuated immediately. Just last month, heavy winds kicked up a smoldering debris fire in Bend; a fast-moving wildfire forced residents out of their home at a moment’s notice. In the canyon conflagrations of September, the fires evolved so quickly that many residents barely escaped with their lives — and some perished.

Part of living in wildfire country involves being ready — having a plan and preparations in place to evacuate. It’s a good idea to assume you’re at Level 1 (Be Ready) starting on June 1.

Emergency officials strongly advise locals to sign up for Deschutes Emergency Alerts. The Deschutes Alert System (DAS) can be used to notify the public with important information during an emergency. Alerts can be sent to cell phones - but only if your number is registered. Sign up at www.deschutes.org/911/page/sign-deschutes-emergency-alerts.

Chief Johnson notes that Deschutes County will opt in to a statewide standardized alerting system, but that has not yet come online. The county is also piloting with Jackson County a program called Zone Haven, which designs predetermined and preprogramed evacuation zones for communities.

“It’s designed to speed up evacuations,” he said.

For more information, visit www.zonehaven.com.

If you have horses and other livestock, it’s imperative to plan for evacuation contingencies, including prearranged places to take your large animals. There are “official” resources available for large animal evacuations, but you should have a contingency plan that can be implemented instantly in an immediate crisis. Make arrangements with friends who have trailers and space for animals.

Extra advance planning may also be necessary if you are dealing with people who have mobility issues or special medical needs.

Planning for evacuation doesn’t have to be on the scale of a military operation — it just requires some thought and effort when things are calm.

Sometimes residents feel compelled to stay to try to defend their home. Firefighters and other emergency personnel strongly advise against this impulse. Not only does it put the homeowner in danger, it endangers firefighters and law-enforcement personnel at grave risk, because they are duty-bound to try to help you if you’re in danger.

We can’t prevent wildfire, but if everybody does their part, we can make Sisters Country more ready and resilient.

View more information on wildfire preparedness in Sisters Country here.