Chief: Limit fireworks

Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief John Karns is proposing that the city ban fireworks uphill from Siskiyou Boulevard and North Main Street.

The proposed "above the boulevard" ban is tentatively scheduled to go before the City Council for consideration on Oct. 20.

Karns took over for retired Fire Chief Keith Woodley and started work in Ashland on June 22. He was soon thrust into the fire department's work to keep people, homes and land safe during Fourth of July festivities.

Karns found that the city bans the use of fireworks during the fire season — except from June 23 to July 6, the time of year that the state government allows fireworks sales in Oregon. Fireworks sales are not allowed within city limits.

But Ashlanders can use fireworks anywhere in the city, even near the urban/wildlands interface where homes meet the forested hillsides above town that make up the Ashland Watershed, source of the city's drinking water.

"I was a little astonished that we were allowing fireworks in our interface at such a dangerous time," said Karns, who came to Ashland after working for a fire department in the Los Angeles area.

Wildfires near Los Angeles have burned about 250 square miles of land, destroyed dozens of homes and killed two firefighters this summer, The Associated Press reported.

Although fireworks are currently allowed anywhere in Ashland, residents are not supposed to use them near dry vegetation.

Yet Karns and Ashland Fire & Rescue Forest Resource Specialist Chris Chambers said when they toured Ashland after the Fourth of July, they did find used fireworks near dry vegetation and close to the Ashland Watershed.

"I think banning fireworks above the boulevard would be great. ... Every year that I've walked out there, I see spent fireworks in areas that are very scary to me," Chambers said.

Karns said the logic behind banning fireworks above Siskiyou Boulevard and North Main Street is that it keeps the devices farther away from the forested hills.

"I thought if we're going to have fireworks at all, at least let's put them on the side of town that doesn't jeopardize the interface and the watershed," he said.

The boulevard and North Main Street could also act as a man-made firebreak where firefighters could keep a fire that started in lower Ashland from spreading uphill, Karns said.

Additionally, the ban above those major roads that bisect Ashland would create a clear delineation of the restricted zone, which would reduce confusion for residents and make enforcement easier, he said.

Karns said the fire and police departments don't have enough staff to adequately enforce the ban if it's put in place. But the city government would undertake an education campaign to let residents know about the ban, he said.

The ban on fireworks above the boulevard would not affect the Ashland Chamber of Commerce's annual public fireworks show. Those big fireworks are set off from Iowa Street, which is below the boulevard, Chambers said.

This year, Ashland suffered two fires caused by residents' personal use of fireworks. A fire below Siskiyou Boulevard burned vegetation, while a fire above the boulevard was caused by a person illegally throwing fireworks into the air, which then landed in a home's gutter and set leaf litter ablaze. Luckily, residents saw the fire in the gutter and put it out, Karns said.

In 2000, a house on Nezla Street above the boulevard was severely damaged by a fireworks-caused fire.

In 2003, Woodley reported to the City Council that there had been 11 fires caused by fireworks during a two-week window around the Fourth of July, a figure significantly higher than the previous year.

One fire damaged a 120-year-old home that was filled with sawdust insulation, he said.

People who start a fire with fireworks could be liable for damages.

The Oregon Department of Forestry has no information that the Siskiyou Fire that started in Ashland on Sept. 21 was caused by fireworks, although investigators believe it was human-caused, ODF District Forester Dan Thorpe said.

Officials will probably announce the cause of the fire in about a month because they are still building a case, he said.

Early this week, the cost to fight the 149-acre Siskiyou Fire had reached $988,995. Crews were scheduled to continue mop up operations this week, followed by a few more weeks of fire checks for any flare-ups, ODF staff said.

If the fire was started on purpose or through negligence, property owners and insurance companies may seek compensation from the person at fault, Thorpe said.

The fire burned a home and damaged other property, including a vehicle that was destroyed.

The government may also seek compensation for the money spent fighting the blaze, Thorpe said.

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

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