Burning Issues

Eugene-Springfield’s late summer brush and grass fires

A green flash lit up the room around 10:30 pm on a warm August night.

Seconds later, the power went out, and I looked out the window of the west Eugene house where I was staying and saw sparks flying out of a blown transformer across the street. Running to the front window I explained to my roommate what had happened and told her everything was fine.

She then asked me a question that made my blood run cold: “Is there a fire?”

I bolted out the front door to see the neighbor’s yard, full of crisp, dead grass, covered in flames.

That grass fire was only one of many this summer. And after several climate change related heat waves, the vegetation is dry and there is an ongoing high fire risk not only in the forests but in urban areas as well. 

Inside the Eugene-Springfield city limits, there have been roughly 87 brush and grass fires from the beginning of June to the end of August — which averages out to about one fire every day. These types of fires can be common this time of year, but the extreme heat makes conditions worse, and Eugene-Springfield Fire says it is important to be vigilant and prepared, regardless of where you live in the area.

“We do see vegetation type fires quite a bit,” says Merrill Harrison, deputy fire marshal for Eugene-Springfield Fire. He says many times they cannot determine the cause of these fires. 

Harrison, whose job entails code enforcement, public education and fire investigation, has been with the fire service for 25 years. Four years ago, he moved from the operations side of firefighting to working for the city. 

The causes of brush and grass fires vary, he says, as some occur naturally, but most are started by humans either intentionally or unintentionally. 

“We have fires caused by a discarded cigarette, fires caused by sparks flying,” Harrison says. It doesn’t take much in dry times to start a fire. Harrison says this summer there were also several arrests in relation to intentionally set fires. It’s difficult to pin down which causes are most common because each fire is incident specific, he says.

Sept. 7 was the anniversary of the Holiday Farm Fire, which devastated communities along the McKenzie River in 2020, and it is a good reminder that just because we are entering the fall months, that doesn’t mean the risk is decreasing, Harrison says. All the beautiful vegetation we are surrounded by equates to an abundance of fuel in dry summers.

“We’ve been in an extremely dry year, and just caution over how we do activities can lower the risk for wildfires,” he continues. Mitigating fire risk, he explains, entails things like tightening trailer safety chains, being aware of where a cigarette is discarded and creating a defensible space around a house. 

He says Eugene-Springfield Fire recommends a neighbor-helping-neighbor approach, where the community comes together to maybe help someone who cannot manage their property as well as others. 

“Wildfire mitigation and management is a community event. It takes a community as a whole to be involved in helping to eliminate the risk,” Harrison says.

Brush and grass fires can happen anywhere. According to a list of brush and grass fires and their addresses provided by the fire department, incidents occurred in both rural and urban parts of the Eugene-Springfield area.

When asked whether there were more brush fires than usual due to the extremely hot and dry summer, Harrison says he doesn’t know if this year differs from previous years in terms of number of fires and where they are located.  

The west Eugene fire I witnessed wasn’t even on the list. Harrison says this might be because there is a mutual aid agreement between Lane Fire Authority and Eugene-Springfield Fire. Although the city fire department responded, the fire may have been recorded by the county.

Harrison says he is thankful for the proactive community who take the steps necessary to prevent these fires as best as they can according to the advice given to them by fire experts. 

“And ultimately that is going to reduce the amount of fires we have, and I have no doubt that it’s reduced the amount of fires we’ve had this year, just because people are actively aware and engaged in a defensible space,” he says.

 Driving back the next morning and seeing the charred grass near the neighbor’s house was a chilling reminder of how easily a fire can start and spread during these dry summers, and how awareness for these situations can prevent a fire from getting out of hand.

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