CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — In 2020, the Riverside Fire burned more than 138,000 acres across Clackamas County. Firefighters were able to stop it on top of a ridge, three miles south of the town of George.

“One always thinks this isn’t ever going to happen to you until you start seeing these massive plumes,” said David Bugni, a resident of George.

Bugni remembers sheriff’s deputies evacuating people from their homes. There are 250 people in the town, with one road in and out.

Bugni noted “a lot of ash, a lot of smoke, and we weren’t allowed to return for almost two weeks and I think that motivated a lot of our fellow community members to get serious get engaged in a program like this.”

Bugni feels fortunate his property was saved, but he’s not relying on luck for the next time a wildfire is spreading.

The program is for grants to pay for wildfire preparedness. Bugni helped organize his neighbors and, through the Clackamas County Soil and Water Conservation District, apply for the money.

The area was awarded a grant to thin more than 4,000 acres of forests along a five-mile stretch. It comes from the Senate Bill 762, passed in 2021, it allocated $220 million dollars to modernize and improve wildfire preparedness.

The money for Bugni’s community is specifically for properties smaller than 160 acres. Another $20 million will help landowners with more than 160 acres.

“This is the first significant state investment in wildfire risk reduction in the state’s history, so it’s a really big deal in the Oregon Department of Forestry,” said Alex Rahmlow, the Small Forestland Grant Program Manager for ODF.

There are three strategies apart of the preparedness projects: creating fire-adapted communities, developing a safe and effective response, and increasing the resiliency of Oregon’s landscapes.

The project in George takes place in a forest Rahmlow says would naturally experience a fire every 20 to 40 years.

Periodic fires like that are part of the natural process in forests, but that process has been halted by society over the last 100 years.

During that time, wildland firefighting was based on the strategy of suppressing fires as quickly as possible.

“When you remove fire from a landscape for 100 years, there’s a lot of fuel that accumulates on that landscape,” Rahmlow said, “So right now, we’re playing a little bit of catch up.”

The forests are not only denser, but drier. Recent rains have helped ease a drought that has varying levels of severity in different areas of the state, yet the most extreme categories of drought persist in Eastern Oregon.

Drought is likely to be a part of Oregon’s future as the effects of climate change impact the state’s ecosystem.

“There are more stresses on our forest ecosystem,” Rahmlow said. “Wildfire risk reduction treatments actually look a lot like forest health treatments in that they increase the resiliency of the trees that are left behind. So, really, not only reducing wildfire risk, we’re also preparing for a future that we’re pretty sure is coming.”

The company Biohabitats is contracted to do the work in the Clackamas County community. It means thinning trees and clearing brush and branches close to the ground to prevent fires from climbing to the tree canopy.

Fires can spread quickly from tree to tree in the canopy and it’s harder for crews to get to.

“When a forest fire gets into the canopy, that’s really when it becomes unmanageable for personnel to go direct on it,” Rahmlow said.

George is one of 23 projects that were granted money, with around $4.2 million given out.

But in the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response, they found 5.6 million acres of forest across Oregon needs mitigation and thinning. Rahmlow hopes this money is a start to get mitigation projects going.

Of the trees cut near George, some of it is left on the ground to restore the natural habitat, but most of it will be donated to the Estacada Area Food Bank for people to use to heat their homes.

Rahmlow thinks there is potential to monetize the resource, to create a self-funding cycle of mitigation.
For now, it’s communities like Bugni’s that are taking the crucial first steps.

Rahmlow added “I hope that other communities like ours get serious and pull together to get involved in a program like this because that’s what’s going to be saving Oregon from what’s down the road.”