Cherise Kachele

In 1973, a wildfire near La Grande burned 6,000 acres of land and destroyed six homes. In 2018, the town of Paradise, California, was razed in the worst wildfire in the state’s history. Now, a small group of community members are working to ensure that what happened to Paradise won’t happen to La Grande.

On Wednesday in the La Grande Fire Department community room, representatives from the City of La Grande, LGFD, Oregon Department of Forestry, U.S. Forest Service, Union County Emergency Services and community members gathered around a table to discuss how to bring valuable information about keeping homes safe to as many people as possible.

A map of the local region in the middle of the table indicated the area’s most vulnerable places. The biggest focus was on the west and southwest side of town, near the Grande Ronde Hospital and along Interstate 84. The locations weren’t necessarily where the biggest risk for fire is, but were chosen for discussion due to the impact a major fire would have there.

The group, called the La Grande Wildland Urban Interface Committee, wants to protect the community from wildfires. This protection begins at home — the group’s aim is to educate Union County homeowners about the importance of cleaning up the land surrounding their homes to prevent the spread of a potential wildfire.

“Being a fire-adapted community is the end result,” said JB Brock, emergency services manager for the county.

The group is focusing its efforts on La Grande for now, said Dylan Howell, the committee chairman, but if its efforts are successful, the committee will expand its reach to get more Union County communities involved.

The program the group is using, called Firewise USA, teaches people how to adapt to living with wildfire and encourages neighbors to work together and take action now to prevent future losses. The program gives a lot of information, Howell said, but participants don’t need a fire science degree to understand it.

“The program is the best tool we have to communicate with the public to prepare for wildfires,” he said.

Howell said there is a growing number of people in the community who are concerned that La Grande and the area surrounding it are vulnerable to wildfires.

In addition to cleaning up around their homes, the program emphasizes the importance of having a family plan for what to do if a wildfire forced them out of their home.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the committee discussed how to get the word out about the program and its importance to the community. The suggestion of giving presentations at local schools and sending students home with information for their parents was a favored strategy.

Howell and the other participants at the meeting are seeking homeowners in the southern and western parts of La Grande willing to become Firewise certified, which means they would remove the debris around their home to make it safe from fire. Interested homeowners may send an email to lgwuicommittee@gmail.com .

The La Grande Wildland Urban Interface Committee meets at 1:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month at the fire station. The meetings are open to anyone in the community who wants to learn more about how to protect our corner of paradise.

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