On Sept. 18, the City Council unanimously passed two updated and expanded wildfire protection ordinances for new construction, along with a resolution defining a list of prohibited flammable plants that applies to all lots in the city starting on Oct. 18. The focus of the ordinances is primarily on flammable vegetation within 30 feet of buildings, but they also outlaw untreated wood shake roofing throughout Ashland.
The city’s wildfire lands overlay will now include all land within the city limits, more accurately reflecting our community’s risk. It’s important to understand what the new ordinances do and, importantly, what they do not do. It’s one step among many we’re taking to decrease Ashland’s wildfire risk in the face of climate change.
First, the majority of the ordinance applies only to new construction. If you’re not applying for a building permit or adding over 200 square feet of lot coverage, just don’t plant new flammable plants (see below). Why this approach? Open lots are often devoid of vegetation, or a majority of vegetation is being removed during the construction process already. It’s the perfect time to ensure that new landscaping is fire resistant and buildings are better protected. While we invest staff time and federal grant funding to make our existing homes safer, we can’t simultaneously build new homes surrounded by flammable plants, perpetuating the problem.
Second, the ordinance defines certain flammable plants as a nuisance and prohibits new plantings across the whole city, building permits or not. Species like Leland cypress, juniper and, yes, even native trees like Douglas fir and pine are not allowed within 30 feet of any buildings (with certain exceptions for widely spaced dwarf varieties). Again, while we increase our ability to deal with existing flammable vegetation throughout the city, we can’t at the same time allow new flammable plantings. That said, we’ll be encouraging native trees in appropriate places to perpetuate Ashland’s urban forest.
Importantly, the City Council received a significant number of comments about potential for rising insurance rates related to the expanded wildfire overlay. City staff researched the issue with many different insurance carriers, state regulators and the Northwest Insurance Council. Though there’s no absolute guarantee that rates won’t be affected, none of the insurance industry representatives contacted said that a local ordinance affects how they issue policies or rate changes. The Insurance Services Office, or ISO, rating is what most companies use to set their fire insurance rates, and fire prevention is one factor in that rating. Ashland is close to an ISO rating of two, and any credit that helps us move toward that goal moves us closer to lower insurance costs. However, rates are rising due to regional wildfire property losses and companies have already been looking more closely at risky situations, and we certainly have our share. If your rates are increasing, ask your agent what factors are influencing your policy and if you can make an appeal or mitigate your risk.
Finally, the new ordinance package does not address existing trees and shrubs, most building materials, or dead vegetation and debris. Though research clearly points to the importance of wildfire resistant home construction, it’s not currently an option for Oregon communities to adopt safer construction standards. We’re working on new rules with the State Building Codes Division and we’ll update you in a future Alarm Box column. Dead vegetation and piles of debris are already addressed in Ashland Municipal Code and complaints can be filed online or in person at the Community Development department. Our Firewise USA program (ashlandfirewise.org) is available to anyone who wants to organize their neighborhood, or to get a Firewise home safety review. We’re working hard on guides and a website to help contractors and citizens navigate the new ordinances. We appreciate your patience and support as we make this needed transition to increase public (and firefighter!) safety.
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.