Ashland's new fire chief sees challenges ahead

Even before he started work in Ashland on June 22, new Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief John Karns knew he was coming to lead a fire department facing serious budget problems.

The Ashland Citizens Budget Committee wrestled this spring with whether to cut the Community Emergency Response Team coordinator and the jobs of two firefighter/emergency medical technicians. Ultimately, they voted to raise property taxes to save those jobs from the chopping block.

While still living in Southern California, Karns followed budget committee and Ashland City Council meetings by watching videos of the proceedings via Internet on his computer.

"I played the budget and council meetings so often, my wife could tell people by their voices," he said.

With government agencies across the nation facing budget problems, Karns is no stranger to money woes.

The former deputy fire chief for the Beverly Hills Fire Department, he said employees of that department are facing furloughs. The Community Emergency Response Team program there was just cut.

"Ashland is facing challenges. Many are similar to those in Beverly Hills," Karns said.

He said that he understands that Ashland's entire city government, not just the fire department, faces financial difficulties.

Ashland Finance Director Lee Tuneberg has warned for several years — even before the current recession cut into government revenues — that growth in city spending is outpacing growth in revenues.

In spring 2008, the city cut jobs, including that of the fire inspector. More jobs were cut during this year's budgeting process, including sewer, water and parks department positions.

Wildfire dangers

Given current budget constraints, Karns said his immediate goal is to get the community more involved by increasing the fire department's education and awareness efforts.

He said some residents are complacent about the risks of a large-scale wildfire burning through Ashland and its forested hills.

"Once a large, wind-driven fire takes place, no fire department in the world can put it out. What you have done before the fire is critical," Karns said.

He said some residents are not trimming back weeds and other vegetation that could feed fires. The danger is greatest in the wildland/urban interface where homes intermix with forest.

"People are not taking it as seriously as they should," Karns said. "The fuel load on private property is tremendous. We need to increase enforcement efforts. No one person has the right to inflict danger on their neighbor."

Karns said Beverly Hills also has a wildland interface issue, but the risk here is more severe because Ashland's municipal water supply comes from the Ashland Watershed.

"Ashland is 100 percent dependent for potable water on the watershed," he said.

Karns said he would like to work with the U.S. Forest Service and the Ashland Forest Lands Commission to reduce fire risk in the watershed.

Most of the watershed is federal land managed by Forest Service, but the city of Ashland owns some forest land near town as well as a parcel near the middle of the watershed. The Ashland Forest Lands Commission is tasked with planning and overseeing the care of the city's property.

The commission, along with other community members, has provided extensive input on a Forest Service proposal to treat federal land.

Residents have long debated whether to leave the forest land alone, cut fuel breaks through the forest to create lines from which to battle fires or do widespread thinning to reduce fuel loads and boost forest health.

Karns said he prefers that forests be managed. He said a combination of fuel breaks and widespread thinning is needed, and specific treatments should be tailored to different sites.

At the same time, Karns said wildfires can behave unpredictably. He's seen fires that climbed into the tops of trees and couldn't be stopped by either fuel breaks or thinned areas.

"They become unstoppable at that point," he said.

CERT critical

Karns said Ashland's Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, program can play a critical role in emergencies, especially in the event of a large wildfire.

He said 208 residents are active volunteers in the program, while about 400 people have received training.

Karns called that level of involvement "phenomenal" for a town Ashland's size.

"The sense of volunteerism in the community here is strong. The potential value of CERT to the community is huge, given certain scenarios," Karns said.

He said wildfire is the biggest threat to Ashland. CERT volunteers could help with early evacuation efforts, set up support services for evacuees, aid first responders and use their communication network to help.

Back in Beverly Hills, Karns sent CERT volunteers and firefighters out to an elementary school for an earthquake drill. Under the mock scenario, the school had collapsed.

"It opened the eyes of the firefighters to the dedication and skills of CERT," Karns said.

Ambulance finances

Like other municipal fire departments, Ashland Fire & Rescue does not recover its costs for providing ambulance service, Karns said.

The philosophy behind having firefighters provide emergency medical response is that firefighters are able to respond quickly. If they didn't also work as emergency medical technicians, or EMTs, they would have to be paid anyway while they wait between fires. Ashland has far more medical calls than fire calls, Karns said.

He said Ashland Fire & Rescue needs to increase staffing for structure fire suppression.

The number of emergency medical services calls is growing over the years in Ashland, which has a large retiree population.

"That's taking our firefighters away and making them unavailable for suppression," Karns said.

He said Ashland shouldn't rely too heavily on its mutual aid agreements with other fire agencies.

Fire departments regularly form mutual aid pacts with departments in surrounding communities to help each other with significant fires. But outlying fire departments can't get to a fire as quickly as the fire department inside the town.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or

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