Oregon Dept. of Forestry
For southwestern Oregon residents, there are two reliable indicators that wildfire season has arrived: smoke in the air, and Brian Ballou on the evening news. Since 2004 the Oregon Department of Forestry fire prevention educator has taught homeowners, recreationists and forest operators common-sense ways to avoid accidentally starting fires while working or playing in the woods. In recognition of his efforts, Ballou recently received the coveted Bronze Smokey Award.
“This is the highest honor given to organizations or individuals for outstanding wildfire prevention service that is national in scope,” Said Dan Thorpe, ODF district forester for SW Oregon. The Gold, Silver and Bronze Smokey Awards recognize individuals and organizations for “outstanding wildfire prevention service or projects rendered.”
Ballou’s innovative approach to educating the public about fire safety incorporates an array of tools, from mass media, to home visits, to social media. A wildfire blog he originated has become the go-to source for area residents seeking current fire information. During the record 2013 and 2014 seasons the blog exceeded 25,000 hits per day.
His brochures, “Wildfire! Are you prepared?” and “Will your home survive a wildfire?” have fostered awareness of the fire risk among thousands of rural homeowners and instructed them in how to make their houses and properties defensible in the event of an encroaching wildfire.
Hundreds of broadcast news media appearances each summer have cemented his reputation as the face of wildfire prevention in SW Oregon.
The fire educator’s behind-the-scenes work has had no less of an impact on the public’s awareness of wildfire risk. He was a key player in the development of Community Wildfire Protection Plans in two counties and five communities.
Willing to reach out even to non-traditional partners to promulgate the wildfire prevention message, Ballou worked with plant specialists, Oregon State University Extension, nurseries, landscapers and others to produce a local list of fire-resistant plants for rural homeowners. Some plants commonly used in landscaping, such as ornamental juniper, can actually carry a ground fire to structures, while the plants on his list resist the flames and also require less water to maintain.
Measuring the success of any type of prevention work can be challenging. But during his tenure in ODF’s Southwest Oregon District, the trend in human-caused wildfires has declined from 200 a year to 165 annually – a significant impact in a fire-prone area with a population of 300,000.
In 1997, the Oregon Legislature passed landmark legislation that addressed the burgeoning threat to forests, life and property posed by developments near and in the forest. The Oregon Forestland-Urban Interface Fire Protection Act, which came to be known as “Senate Bill 360,” broke new ground by encouraging rural residents to turn their fire-vulnerable urban and suburban properties into less-volatile zones where firefighters could better defend homes from wildfires. Ballou implemented the Act throughout Jackson and Josephine counties and statewide with passion and creativity, developing an entire suite of SB-360 aids, including a guidance manual for rural residents, certification training materials, and a property self-evaluation form.
His nomination for the Bronze Smokey Award received broad support from the community, with 31 letters of support submitted by organizations including the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon State Fire Marshal, The Nature Conservancy, Congressman Greg Walden, Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association and others.
Gwen Beavans, National Fire Prevention Coordinator with the U.S. Forest Service, described the high regard in which Ballou is held for his work:
“Brian is a longstanding stalwart representative in fire prevention and a household name in southern Oregon, just like Smokey Bear,” she said.
Ballou works out of ODF’s Southwest Oregon District office in Central Point, and he resides with his family in the area.