Low elevation fires a significant risk in Ashland

Ashland Fire & Rescue proactively inspects land for overgrown flammable vegetation in the city's wildfire hazard zone, but because of a lack of manpower, has to rely on complaints from neighbors to find tall dry grass, blackberry brambles and other dangerous fuels in lower Ashland.

Over the years, the risk of fire in the forested hills of upper Ashland has drawn the most community attention because those hills could spread fire into the Ashland Watershed, source of the city's drinking water.

But the Aug. 24 Oak Knoll fire and an Aug. 13 fire that burned a field and threatened homes on Starflower Lane in lower Ashland highlight the danger of fires below the forested wildfire hazard zone.

"The wildfire hazard zone is a priority because we have limited staffing and that seems to be the greatest resource at threat — and the likeliest, statistically," said Ashland Fire & Rescue Fire Marshal Margueritte Hickman.

"But the Oak Knoll fire demonstrated that a fire can occur anywhere."

The Oak Knoll fire in southeast Ashland started on dry, grassy land under Jackson County jurisdiction on the west side of Interstate 5 before jumping the freeway, burning more county land on the east side, then destroying 11 homes inside city limits. Tall brush and blackberry bushes grew on the west side where the fire started, and neighbors also said there was a strip of unmaintained, overgrown vegetation on the east side of the freeway between an Oregon Department of Transportation fence and their own fences.

Inside city limits, the fire near Starflower Lane blackened undeveloped land overgrown with tall grass and blackberry bushes. Firefighters stopped the spread of the blaze to neighboring homes.

Part of the overgrown land had been trimmed after the city put an owner through its weed abatement process, which requires the city to notify a property owner and allow 10 days for vegetation to be cut, Hickman said.

Another piece of land that was blackened in the Starflower fire is owned by a bank that took the land back from a development company. City staff have been working to find the right person at the bank to talk to about abating the weeds there, Hickman.

The city does have emergency provisions in the municipal code that allow it to remove weeds that pose an imminent danger. In those cases, the city does not have to notify the owner in advance before having the hazard removed.

Ashland Fire & Rescue has been responsible for weed abatement in the city limits since last year, when the city laid off a code enforcement officer during rounds of staff cuts taken to close a budget hole.

In May, the fire department sent out about 600 or 700 letters to property owners in the wildfire hazard zone in upper Ashland. Owners had until June 15 to cut back flammable vegetation, Hickman said.

Landowners below the zone who had problem properties last year also received letters, she said.

On June 16, the fire department started inspecting properties in the wildfire hazard zone, and also began taking complaints about problem properties outside the zone. The department devoted a full-time person to that effort for six weeks. A firefighter on light duty also helped that person deal with complaints, Hickman said.

If fire department staff find a problem property in the wildfire hazard zone, or get a complaint about a problem property outside the zone, the department sends off a certified letter to the landowner with a notice to clear up the vegetation hazard within 10 days. The fire department then reinspects the land, Hickman said.

The fire department sent out 150 to 160 certified letters this year, Hickman said.

Of those, 73 went to landowners in the wildfire hazard zone, she said.

Although slightly more than half of the letters went to landowners in lower Ashland, there are far more homes below the wildfire zone boundary, which is well above Siskiyou Boulevard.

If a landowner still hasn't cut vegetation 11 days after receiving a certified letter, the fire department can send a landscaper to the property and bill the landowner.

"The majority of people who get the letter do abate. It's a benefit to them and taxpayers to give them an opportunity to do it themselves," Hickman said. "If the city has to intervene, that takes city staff time. If they don't pay the abatement bill, we have to put a lien on their property."

A bill for weed abatement and inspections costs about $320 for a half-acre of land. The bill can be higher if the abatement requires more than just mowing, she said.

"We would really like for our citizens to be accountable and to take responsibility for their own property," Hickman said.

Ashland Project Manager Adam Hanks supervised the code enforcement officer who worked on weed abatement before being laid off. Hanks said the time spent on weed abatement appears to be about the same now that the responsibility has passed to the fire department.

"Everything that I've heard that is happening now is fairly consistent with how we've done it in the past," he said. "Overall, the program has stayed significantly the same for the past 10 to 15 years."

Hanks noted the city has put more emphasis on wildfire fuels reduction in the forested areas of town, but he doesn't believe that has taken away from time spent on the rest of Ashland. Instead, the city has been able to use federal wildfire fuels reduction funding to step up its efforts in the hazard zone, he said.

Hanks said he didn't have an estimate for how much city staff time it would take to inspect every piece of land in Ashland that is both inside and outside the wildfire hazard zone. But at a minimum, he said that would require driving slowly on every single road and alley in Ashland, looking at properties. Many areas, such as backyards, would remain hidden from view.

Meanwhile, fire officials are compiling a list of steps the Ashland City Council could take to reduce fire risk in Ashland neighborhoods. They plan to present the suggestions to the council in the coming weeks, said Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief John Karns.

Karns said he would like to see the city enact a stricter policy that would require homeowners to remove more debris and flammable vegetation from their lots. Karns also plans to suggest that the city require new developments to use some fire-resistant building materials, he said.

Ashland residents can do their part to help the community be more safe by notifying the fire department about property with overgrown vegetation.

For information on vegetation rules and to download a form to report a problem property, visit http://www.ashland.or.us/Page.asp?NavID=12841. The site also has a list of contractors who can help residents remove problem vegetation on their own land.

The fire danger level in Ashland remains at "extreme" levels, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com. Reporter Hannah Guzik contributed to this story.

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