Taking the mic during a question-and-answer segment at Thursday night’s city-hosted town hall on wildfire preparedness, a Philomath woman wanted to hear specifics on how to get the conversation going with neighbors that she doesn’t know to establish a team approach to staying safe in the face of a community emergency.
“I’m really interested in creating a preventative type of relationship with them as far as what to do,” she said. “In my neighborhood, there’s lots of fields all around me … and all last season, I was super nervous because my house is right next to it.”
A reality in today’s world is that neighbors don’t know each other as well as they did, say, 50 or even 25 years ago. People come and go in a more mobile society and even talking to each other over the back fence or while retrieving the day’s mail is not as common. So, in that vein, how do you get people together for a common cause like creating an emergency response plan?
Six panelists on hand for the 90-minute town hall in Philomath High’s auditorium had plenty of information to share while responding to those types of questions. One of the main points during the evening was that resources are out there for people seeking answers.
Carrie Berger, fire program manager for Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, earlier in the evening had talked about what goes into being a fire-adapted community — a topic that prompted the woman in the audience to want to know more.
“There’s a lot that goes into being a fire-adapted community — it’s not just about being firewise, it’s not just about evacuation, it’s not just about doing one thing and then you’re done, it’s continuous,” Berger said. “To start, a fire-adapted community understands the risks. You understand that Oregon has fire and it’s part of our landscape and so you’re doing things to help mitigate that risk and understand your own risk — it’s all part of it.”
Berger provided examples of the Corvallis firewise neighborhood of 168 homes where she lives and what has been done to prepare, even including an evacuation exercise. She had suggestions on how to personally be prepared from making a list of contacts of family and friends outside the area to connecting with the insurance company to make sure the right coverage is in place.
Then there are the things homeowners can do to their properties, such as cleaning out gutters and not storing wood up against the house. Connecting with others is a must to establish a community approach to preparedness.
“Talk to your neighbors … be the spark in your neighborhood that brings your neighborhood together,” Berger said. “Firewise is a great, nationally recognized program that you can be a part of no matter if you are in the county or the city.”
The panel of individuals covered a lot of ground with the 40 individuals in attendance along with whoever might be watching online. Wildfire preparedness is an issue that must be addressed in an Oregon community like Philomath.
“It’s a big issue that’s not going to get any better,” Philomath Fire & Rescue Capt. Rich Saalsaa told the audience. “We do a lot of preparation work behind the scenes on being able to respond and being able to manage. I think the big shift here — and you’ll hear this in the conversation tonight — it’s really about preparedness. That really is key.”
Bryan Lee, emergency manager for the Benton County Sheriff’s Office, stressed the same point.
“We really, really encourage people to take it seriously … preparedness is a lifestyle,” Lee said. “It used to be something that folks just did, looking out for their neighbors, looking out for each other, having a community. Those are the things that are going to actually be the most resilient to any disaster, not just wildfire.”
Saalsaa lauded the efforts of Wren and how residents in that rural area have organized a model firewise community.
“They’re probably one of the best examples that we have of a community coming together and working together — first from a prevention standpoint and then secondarily to work with one another in terms of communication and what happens if an earthquake hits, wildfire, flooding, you name it,” Saalsaa said, adding that Pioneer Village is another firewise community in the Philomath area.
Kim Webster, chair of the Wren Emergency Planning Committee, provided some details on her community’s preparedness efforts — a location where many residents have one way in, one way out.
Said Webster, “We do have drills every year to make sure everybody knows what they’re supposed to do.”
Saalsaa said he doesn’t want to use scare tactics and say that what happened to Paradise, California, will happen in Philomath. However, he did say that such devastation probably could be possible under the right conditions and set of circumstances.
“The fact of the matter is that many of these towns that get decimated, it’s not necessarily because of the wildfire itself,” Saalsaa said, “but because there were conditions on the ground in and around a property that actually promoted the ability for fire to take place.”
Saalsaa said he’s seen pictures of wildfires tearing through communities and leaving some properties untouched — as if the fire just burned out upon reaching that point. Those involved situations where the property owners had taken precautionary measures that might save their house one day.
Rep. David Gomberg, who was a guest at the town hall, was invited to the podium to share his personal experience with wildfire — and preparedness was the theme. Gomberg lives northeast of Lincoln City in Otis, which was impacted heavily by the Echo Mountain Complex Fire in 2020.
Gomberg talked about the importance of taking personal responsibility for knowing what you will do in response to an evacuation.
“Have your family plan, have your defensible space, so that if something happens — and it’s going to happen to everybody around you — you need to be in a position to take care of yourself before you can help others,” Gomberg said, “or at least get on your way so the first responders that are there don’t have to worry about you and they can focus on the next family.”
The state representative, who serves on a House committee on wildfire recovery, shared a harrowing story that ended with his home saved, probably in large part because of things that he had done as a property owner.
Gomberg and his wife had an emergency response plan — although a massive earthquake seemed more likely than a wildfire.
“Because we had a plan, we knew what we needed to do,” he said. “I believe that plan saved us time when there was precious little time to be had.”
He shared a moment he had with his wife before leaving for the beginning of what would be a 10-day evacuation.
“We looked around the house after that 15-minute scramble to see if we had forgotten anything and I reached into the sideboard and pulled out a good bottle of Scotch,” Gomberg said. “And I poured two glasses and Susan and I, we toasted to 30 years in the house that had been our home. And then we closed the door and left and we didn’t know if it would be there when we got back.”
The couple returned to find their home still there, but many others were not so fortunate with approximately 300 lost to the fire.
Lee and Berger both stressed the importance of signing up for the Linn-Benton Alert, an emergency notification system that calls or messages residents to warn of impending or occurring emergencies and provides critical safety instructions.
Benton County had several informational brochures and flyers that folks could pick up at the town hall. Those resources are also available online in this section on the county’s website.
“I think the big sort of hot ticket item that I’d really like to drive home tonight is the fact that we have really robust cooperation with our partners in Benton County and that starts with fire departments like Philomath Fire and the rest of those in fire support,” said Leo Williamson, protection unit forester with the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Philomath Unit.
Chelsea Starner, Philomath assistant city manager, had comments about emergency management and wildfire preparedness resources that are available, including what can be found on the city’s website.
Mayor Chas Jones provided opening remarks. City councilors David Low and Teresa Nielson assisted with introductions and taking questions from the audience. The crowd included several county and community leaders, including six of the seven city councilors, a county commissioner and the county sheriff, among several others.