If the haze hovering in Bend today tells us anything, it’s that there’s one doozy of a fire season heating up for 2021.
As I write this, there’s a wildfire gobbling thousands of acres northwest of Bend, and another to the south near La Pine. Oregon currently has the nation’s largest wildfire (the Bootleg blaze near Klamath Falls) which is not the sort of “best of” list we love making for our pine-filled state.
While Bend’s current drought conditions make fire safety crucial, there are ways to enjoy a safe, fun summer in our high desert oasis. Here are six tips to help you through the 2021 fire season.
Know the rules
There’s nothing like campfire marshmallows, but now’s the time to forego flames for the greater good.
Effective July 12, 2021, all open fires––including charcoal fires––are prohibited on lands administered by the Deschutes National Forest, the Ochoco National Forest and Crooked River National Grassland, and the Prineville District Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
To put it simply: No fires allowed in Central Oregon. Not anywhere. Not on public lands, in private campgrounds, or in your buddy’s secret fire pit. Don’t even fart. That’s how high the fire risk is right now in our bone-dry desert setting.
Campfires aside, fireworks are always banned on public lands, including national forests, Wilderness areas, BLM, and state parks. The City of Bend recently extended its fireworks ban through the end of August, which is a big deal. It’s the first time I’ve seen it happen in nearly a quarter-of-a-century living in Bend, which shows how seriously officials are taking this. Folks were respectful of this rule over 4th of July, so let’s keep working together to hold wildfire at bay.
Pack the common sense
Besides tucking the ten essentials in your knapsack, there’s an equally important item to include if you’re playing outside during fire season: Common sense.
I thought of this last week when a friend sent an invite for a group campout and wrote, “please make a mental note of what side your exhaust pipe is on.” She reminded us how a hot tailpipe can turn dry sagebrush into a bonfire, and I had to admit, I wasn’t 100% positive where mine’s located (I know now).
Keep hot car parts in mind anytime you’re parking or driving a vehicle around our parched desert. Better yet, schedule a tune-up and make sure there are no chains dragging or worn brake pads causing sparks.
Park and drive only in areas marked for those activities. If you show up at your favorite riverfront spot and the parking lot’s full, don’t squeeze your rig onto the grass or fragile forest floor. Move to the second-choice spot on your bucket list, then pat yourself on the back for making sure our special places stay safe for the next time you visit.
Same goes for cigarettes, which you should only light in your private vehicle. No tossing butts, no matter how far you think you are from flammable material. It only takes a spark for this whole tinderbox to go up in flames.
Keep a fire extinguisher in your vehicle so you can do your part if you spot something smoldering. If you do see a potential blaze, act fast in calling 911––even if you think someone called it in already. Smokey Bear needs all our help this year. If you drive off of paved roads and are on public lands, you’re also required to carry a shovel and five gallons of water.
Bookmark the info sources
Each time smoke wafts into Bend, my Facebook feed lights up like a roman candle. Where’s the fire? Are we on evacuation notice?
One way to have fire info at your fingertips is to bookmark the Central Oregon Fire page. There, you’ll find up-to-the-minute details on area wildfires, including evacuation notices and handy interactive maps.
Another great move is to register your cell number with Deschutes County emergency alerts. It’s not just useful for fire emergencies, but other natural disasters like flooding, hazardous material incidents, missing children, and public welfare alerts. While it scared the snot out of me last summer to get a level-2 evacuation alert, it was invaluable knowing when to load pets and possessions in the car as we awaited further instruction.
While Bend’s air quality remains stable at the moment, that can change in seconds. Last fall’s big blazes left those of us with athsmatic kids paying close attention to shifting winds. I use the AirNow app to keep tabs on Bend’s air quality so I know when it’s safe to walk the dogs and when it’s healthier to hunker inside with a cold Bend beer.
Watch your respiratory health
Hiking at high altitudes around Bend can be challenging if you’re not used to it. Add smoke to the mix and you’re putting lots of extra pressure on your respiratory system.
Monitoring air quality with an app like I mentioned is one way to keep tabs on what’s happening. Even your phone’s weather app can display basic air quality info.
It’s also worth rifling through your COVID cupboard for high-quality masks. While the cloth kind most of us wore for the pandemic won’t protect you from wildfire smoke, the CDC recommends the N95 or KN95 variety. Go here for more CDC info on safeguarding your health during fire season.
Find your fire fix elsewhere
It’s a bummer breaking the news to kids that s’mores aren’t invited on the family campout. I just told my teens there will be no blueberry orange campfire muffins for this weekend’s trip, and you’d think I ripped out their hearts and stomped them with my hiking boot.
But they know what a lousy fire season looks like, so they’re glad to do their part making sure our favorite places are still there when fire season’s over.
If you’re hunting for ways to find your fire fix without…yanno…actual fire, check out this blog post from a few years ago. You’ll find smoke-inspired cocktails and eats, plus other ideas for feeling the burn without burning the forests.
Don’t be that guy
Even if you’re new to Oregon, you’ve heard stories. The Awbrey Hall fire in 1990 that torched 3,350 acres and 22 homes in Bend, resulting in prison time for the guy who set it. The teenager who carelessly tossed a firework in The Gorge, creating a forest fire that burned 47,000 acres and prompted a judge to order him to pay $36.6 million in restitution. The Bend man who lit an illegal firework in 2018 and torched 10 acres of Pilot Butte, leading to mass power outages, a beloved landmark that’s still charred, and jail time plus pricey restitution for the guy who thought he was just having a good time on Independence Day.
I could keep going, but you get the point. Not only do careless actions lead to wildfire, but they come with stiff consequences for those not following the rules. Don’t be that guy. Heed the warnings, do your part, and we’ll get through this fire season together.
Stay safe out there, folks! Thanks for tending each other and our wild places.