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Landowners up the McKenzie work with EWEB to prevent future fires

October 25, 2022

Sue Zeni on her property near Walterville

Hundreds of landowners in the McKenzie River valley are working with EWEB to prevent future fires and protect the river by replanting burned properties and removing fuels like dead trees and underbrush.

Jim Baker has lived on a wooded property in Vida since 1967. The 2020 Holiday Farm Fire burned through here destroying his home.

“Well, we lost the house and the cabin down below and the big white mobile home was 50% damaged,” said Jim Baker.

Baker sat in in the living room of his newly rebuilt house on this 60-acre property. He has seen fires here before — a cabin nearby burned down years ago. But the Holiday Farm Fire was different. Nearly 500 homes were burned in the wind-driven fire that moved quickly through the McKenzie River Valley on Labor Day.Jim Baker sits on his front porch in Vida

Baker is part of Pure Water Partners (PWP), which helps landowners improve and restore their lands in the McKenzie River corridor. Baker described the work that PWP did on his land.

“Most of the property’s steep. Steep slopes or riparian. (We) did fuel reduction on some of that and some between the timber sale and the house. And they also cleaned up down below and on the bank below the house here. Did a great job,” Baker said.Jim Baker's property in Vida

EWEB’s Karl Morgenstern has been involved with Pure Water Partners since its inception in 2014. It was formed to encourage and enable private landowners to protect and restore their land, especially in riparian areas, in a way that benefits the environment. The program was crucial to EWEB’s swift response after the Holiday Farm Fire.

“We shifted from doing riparian health assessments to basically doing burn assessments and designing erosion control and replanting burned riparian areas. So, we were able to basically pivot very quickly.” Morgenstern said.

“The nexus for EWEB in fuels reduction is two- or three-fold. One we can treat the landscape in a way that brings native (plants) back, more fire-resistant, drought-tolerant species, that then allow us to be more resilient to future fires,” Morgenstern said. “It allows us to basically protect our infrastructure that’s up there by having larger scale treatments designed rather than individual properties. “

This helps protect the McKenzie River, which provides drinking water for about 200,000 EWEB customers.

Funding from EWEB customers, as well as state and federal grants, has made this work possible.

EWEB customers support these efforts to restore the watershed and keep drinking excellent quality water through the watershed recovery fee, which will raise about $12.3 million over 5 years and is scheduled to sunset in 2026. This allowed EWEB to invest an additional $4.25 million toward watershed recovery efforts in 2022.

EWEB also works with a variety of funding sources, including state and federal grants, to fund Pure Water Partners and protect the McKenzie River. In the two years since the fire, EWEB has leveraged about $15 million in grants to scale up efforts that benefit water quality and habitat.

Pure Water Partners is now working with over 250 landowners in the watershed and the program is moving towards a more contiguous, landscape-scale effort to reduce fuels and increase resiliency.

“And so now we’re moving towards more of designing landscape restoration, fuels reduction projects that cross property boundaries,” Morgenstern said. “So a property will have a piece of that larger design rather than us going tax lot by tax lot and working within the confines of the tax lot.”

Sue Zeni owns a tree farm off Deerhorn Road near Walterville. Her property was outside the Holiday Farm Fire’s burn zone, but she’s doing fuel reduction projects to make it more resilient in case another fire comes through here.Sue's property on Deerhorn road near Walterville

“So, I need to take out some of the trees so the biggest and the best trees stay. So, I needed to do the thinning anyway, but I was generating quite a bit of fuels with the branches,” Zeni said. “So the PWP allowed me not to leave all that as fire fodder. It could be chipped up and spread back on the woods which is perfect.”

Zeni purchased this property more than 20 years ago. Her goal is to make it a biodiverse, healthy forest that continues to the next generation.

“I love trees with a passion, so this is a project to keep me busy for the rest of my life,” Zeni said. “I guess I feel lucky I was able to apply for this program. It’s been really helpful and will pay off in the future."

The Pure Water Partners program is applying for its largest grant yet, over $10-million that would help fund landscape scale fuels reduction projects like Zeni’s for the next 5 years. 

EWEB’s Strategic Program Manager Jeannine Parisi said fuels reduction can be expensive for individual homeowners.

“That’s why we are looking for additional federal funds to support this work, support property owners who live in higher fire risk areas and make the watershed more resilient to wildfire,” said Parisi. “There’s a lot of opportunity to scale up this work and it will take strong partnerships to help reduce the risk of destructive wildfires in our area.”

In the meantime, McKenzie valley property owners interested in having a property assessment are encouraged to reach out to Pure Water Partners.