Alarm Box: Act now to prepare for more fires later

This last year changed our thinking about wildfires. The seven-week smoke inundation and incredible California devastation affected our thoughts and our health. Climate change is telling us to pay attention and, without delay, simultaneously curb our emissions and adapt to what’s already coming.

And what is coming? Scientists say at least a 300 percent increase in wildfires by 2040. That’s a lot more fire. What can we do? Fortunately, there’s a lot we can do to become fire adapted.

Our local experiences, combined with fires in other communities (Weed, Wenatchee, Santa Rosa), and our own analysis show all of Ashland is at risk to wildfire. If not directly exposed to flames, homes and businesses can experience wind-blown embers that commonly ignite buildings during wildfires (like the K-Mart in Santa Rosa).

Lessons learned the hard way and wildfire safety research both show a path forward toward a less flammable future, but first we have to stop digging ourselves deeper in a hole. We need to build all new buildings to the highest standard for wildfire safety. We know how to do this — California began requiring this level of safety in wildfire zones in 2008, and industries and contractors have responded to this new market.

Ashland Fire & Rescue and the Wildfire Mitigation Commission have taken input from the Planning Commission and Tree Commission to propose expanding the existing Wildfire Hazard Zone (WHZ) to encompass the entire city limits. This would eliminate use of wood shake roofing and flammable landscaping during new construction or remodels that increase a building’s footprint by more than 200 square feet. The ordinance would not apply to properties where construction is not proposed.

Also, if a key change is made to the State Fire Code in the coming months, we plan to adopt new safety standards for construction materials as well — after all, the three little pigs figured out that wood houses didn’t keep the big, bad wolf away. Construction and vegetation are intertwined components of wildfire safety.

Along with improved safety in new construction, we will be considering an ordinance to no longer allow new flammable plants near any buildings in Ashland. There are many, many options for drought resistant and fire-wise plants and trees that take into account deer and pollinators too. This part of the program also brings an element of equality between new and existing buildings. If a newly constructed home has to use fire safe landscaping, why would we allow their neighbors to install a row of Leland cypress just over their fence?

We’re embarking on a long journey into a changing climate that requires new ways of living and relating to the natural world as well as each other. In this case, we have the knowledge to prepare for much of what lies ahead. Now, we just need the spirit and motivation to make it happen, and Ashland has never been short on those.

Ashland Fire & Rescue is ready to work with you. See our website on this wildfire safety ordinance at ashland.or.us/whz.

The proposed wildfire safety ordinance changes are planned for hearing at the Planning Commission on June 12 and at a City Council meeting sometime in July or August, to be announced at ashland.or.us.
— Chris Chambers is the Ashland Fire & Rescue Forest Division Chief. The Alarm Box, a column with local public safety information, appears triweekly in the Tidings.

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