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Deschutes County grants to help curb wildfire risk, 30 years after Awbrey Hall Fire

(Update: Adding video, comments from retired fire battalion chief, county)

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- On Tuesday, Deschutes County sent out a subtle but important reminder of the risks that come with not being prepared for wildfires in a fire-prone area. 

On the 30th anniversary of the devastating Awbrey Hall Fire, the county announced it has allocated $20,000 in grants to fund fuel reduction projects in an effort to reduce wildfire risk in the county.

The fuel reduction discretionary grants are intended to help communities with short-term projects related to reducing fuels and improving defensible space in Deschutes County. Applicants must be working at a neighborhood or community scale to be eligible for the grants.

Ed Keith, the Deschutes County forester, said it was not intentional to make the grants available on the 30th anniversary of the destructive blaze. But he called it a good reminder of how quickly fires can spread, if people and property are unprepared.

“These are grants for communities looking to reduce the risk of wildfires by doing fuel reduction, so thinning trees, limbing trees, removing flammable brush, as well as projects aimed at reducing the risk to homes,” he said.

A community can seek and receive a maximum of $2,000. Award amounts will be dependent on how well the applicant meets the county’s criteria. 

Keith said the county is accepting applications for the grants until Sept. 30.

Boone Zimmerlee, the director of Project Wildfire and the county’s fire-adapted communities coordinator, said the region has come a long way in improving fire safety and prevention measures over the past 30 years.

“The Awbrey Hall Fire was one of multiple fires that were the catalyst for the Oregon defensible space law,” Zimmerlee said. 

Zimmerlee said as more housing developments continue to trickle into wildland areas, promoting defensible spaces is key to protecting residents.

It’s not a question of if, but when fires come through,” Zimmerlee said. “Things we have differently now is, we do have standards for defensible space, and a lot of collaborators and partners we work with to help promote those messages.”

Thirty years ago Tuesday, shortly before sunset, the Awbrey Hall Fire erupted, destroying 22 homes. The wind-whipped fire blackened nearly 3,500 acres and spread six miles in 10 hours, threatening subdivisions along Bend’s Westside. 

NewsChannel 21 spoke with retired Bend Fire and Rescue battalion chief Dave Howe, who was working that fateful day.

Howe said the fire also ignited the importance of working with multiple resources available across Oregon. He said the governor ordered resources from all parts of the state to come and help with the fire.

“At night, all these fire engines from across the state started arriving at our fire station,” Howe said. “I ended up staying there for 48 hours, running that operation and communicating with the state and other entities. I didn’t get to go to the fire at all. But that’s the way it is. Someone has to do that.”

Howe said the fuel moisture was low at the time, while the topography also allowed the flames to move as quickly as they did within a short span of time. The third key factor in wildfires -- the weather -- did not lessen the impact, he said.

“It was one of those weird nights where the temperature didn’t drop much, so the fire was allowed to continue burning like it was midday,” Howe said.

Investigators at first believed the cause was an abandoned campfire that spread from Shevlin Park, due to items found there.

But six years later, Aaron Groshong, the owner of Wildcat Firefighting Services, was accused of arson in connection with Awbrey Hall and seven other fires in the area and was suspected of numerous more. He was convicted in another fire and spent 18 months in prison.

“It started burning houses in the way,” Howe said. “The police chief’s house burned, the house of a friend of ours near the police chief, it burned to the ground. Gone.”

In 1996, the lightning-sparked Skeleton Fire in the Sundance subdivision southeast of Bend destroyed 19 houses and burned almost 18,000 acres.

Those and many other destructive fires over the years have spurred major efforts to lessen the danger for homes in the "wildland-urban interface," and have made "defensible space" a common term, also making efforts to remove wildfire fuels a priority for many.

The 2014 Two Bulls Fire that also prompted evacuations and threatened Bend's west side was called likely arson by officials in the days after, but no arrests have ever been announced.

Just last week, U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officials said they would investigate three recent wildfires in the La Pine area as possible arson.

The fires include: the Rosland Road Fire, which was reported around 2 p.m. July 18, near Newberry Estates and contained at 393 acres; the Finley Fire, which was reported at 2:30 p.m. July 8, about two miles east of La Pine and contained at 45 acres, and the Paulina Lake Fire, which was reported at 1 p.m. July 5 about six miles northeast of La Pine and contained at 48 acres.

Article Topic Follows: Deschutes County

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Rhea Panela

Rhea Panela is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Rhea here.

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Barney Lerten

Barney is the digital content director for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Barney here.


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