The Evolution of a Firewise Community
By Marlena Weisbrot, CMCA®, Aperion Management Group, LLC, AAMC®, Bend, OR
No one will ever forget the Summer of 2020…the orange sky that hung over us for days. The stench of what remained of a destroyed landscape…the ash falling like snow in the 100-degree heat.
This was too close to home. This was real.
For the Board of Directors and Homeowners of Awbrey Butte Owners Association in Bend, Oregon, the achievement of obtaining a Firewise Designation had been a long-term goal which was sought in order to increase attraction to the Community, boost property values and decrease insurance dues. And of course, to increase fire safety. The Single-Family home Community performed the standard requirements of designation by encouraging all owners to clean up their properties by enticing them with free green waste disposal and providing them some education on how to increase defensible space by inviting local Firewise representatives to do presentations during Annual Meetings. Everything went splendidly- the needles from the thousands of pine trees covering “The Butte” were cleaned up, unsightly bitterbrush and other noxious weeds were pulled or trimmed, and people just felt better…
Until the Summer of 2020 when over 1 million acres burned in Oregon, pulling at least 500,000 of our fellow Oregonians out of their homes to seek safety. One day we were gazing out the window admiring the natural beauty of our Central Oregon forests…the next day we gazed out the same window and recognized the intense power of our Central Oregon ecosystem.
It was time to step up our efforts.
The Board of Directors, Firewise Committee and the Architectural Committee banded together for brainstorming sessions: the goal- keep our community and our homes safe and still beautiful at the same time. Deschutes County Forestry, representatives of local Firewise agency and Bend Fire Department were enlisted in the meetings to help sculpt a plan for long-term fire prevention efforts.
In the Spring of 2022, we had a group of 25 passionate members of the community come together to help the cause. The goal was to ultimately perform individual assessments of each of the 778 homes/lots within the community, render recommendations to the owners for modifications to their landscape and homes, while protecting the CC&R’s requirement for thorough review and approval by the Architectural Committee and keeping the high aesthetic standards of the Community. The Volunteers dedicated their time to training under the Forestry Dept and Fire Department, on what to look for when performing assessments. The trainings are designed to be continual and offered by vetted professionals in the fields of fire safety, and civic agents on a rolling basis. The Team also banded with fellow Firewise Designated HOA’s on their experiences for Home Assessment programs (albeit on a smaller scale.) The Association hired a Wildfire Consultant to join the Architectural Committee who began reviewing all plans with an eye on defensible space and ladder fuel reduction. Ultimately the Association’s Architectural Guidelines and Rules & Regulations were revised to ensure that homes were being built and maintained in a way that would aid in the safety of their structures and their neighbors’ properties. The assessments include checklists and custom notes sections per the Immediate Zone (0-5 feet from home) which covers the fire resistance of the home materials including roofing, siding, windows as well as seemingly insignificant items such as the size of mesh vent screening to ensure that embers are unable to pass through. The Intermediate Zone 2 (5-30 feet from home) checklist includes trees/tree limbs adjacent to the home, flammable plant material and debris and firewood storage. Next is the Extended Zone 3 (30-100 feet from home) which focuses on trees and other potential flammable materials in this native landscape zone. And finally, Zone 4, which covers curbside and Fire Department access.
The Assessors are put into pairs and are assigned to a group of addresses. They schedule their own inspections at theirs and the homeowner’s convenience and perform the assessment right alongside the owner to ensure they can answer any questions that may arise. At the end of the Assessment, a copy of the form is sent to the owner and to Management, who keeps a detailed database of all assessments, photos, owner, and assessor contact details, etc. When an owner submits an Architectural Modification application, Management pulls any assessment reports on file to send to the Arc Committee along with their plans. The plans are reviewed by the Arc Committee’s Wildfire Consultant who then drafts and presents a review to the Committee. Upon approval, the owner is notified. Upon completion of work, Management is notified, and their Fire Assessment files are updated reflecting the action taken. What may seem like a very tedious procedure, we have developed quite a groove where the process is streamlined and semi-automated using task management software.
In the Spring of 2022, during the span of just 3 months the Team had already received over 200 requests for Fire Assessments and have completed over 150 of them. No one had imagined how popular this program would be, but the Team has been at the top of their game in ensuring their assignments are completed as promptly as possible.
The members of the Association have grown more inquisitive about Fire Prevention and, in response- “The Firewise Bugle”, was created. This monthly newsletter shares news and tips for Firewise efforts, as well as links to helpful articles and impactful videos to “Remember our Why”.
The amount of flammable debris and hazardous trees that were removed in May 2022, during the Free Disposal event was double the amount of the year prior- all while maintaining the healthy, natural Central Oregon aesthetic beautifully.
And, of course, the people…the sense of community has strengthened as the neighbors working together have fostered friendships. The Association’s Annual Meeting this year has been moved up to the Summer to allow for greater attendance and to be able to host an in-person dinner for all, rather than a Zoom link in a lost email. We look forward to breaking bread in celebration of our progress while still ensuring adequate preparation for what we are working so hard to avoid.
Over my 8 years in this industry, I have never been prouder of a team as I am of Awbrey Butte Owners Association, their Board, Arc, Firewise Committee and Assessment Team. Additionally, I am in awe of the assistance received by the County, City, Fire Department and local experts by means of grants and training opportunities. By all means, we have a long road to go- but the great strides we have taken have proved the strength in our owners. Surely, I will never forget the ashy Summer of 2020, but it will also serve as a reminder of strength and hard work shown by this group of outstanding homeowners in Spring, 2022.