Time to take control of yard debris

The night of the Oak Knoll fire, after filing my stories, I came home around 11 p.m., reeking of smoke and still thinking about the people who had lost their homes.

"So you covered the fire," my housemate said when I walked in.

I gave him the news: A fast-moving fire jumped Interstate 5 and burned 11 houses, igniting one after the other, like birthday candles on a cake from hell.

We talked about how sad it was. Eleven families had been displaced within about 15 minutes. So many tangible pieces of their lives had been destroyed so fast.

We talked about how strange it was. We didn't expect a catastrophic fire to erupt in an Ashland neighborhood, outside of the watershed.

And then we looked in the backyard.

"So, speaking of fire danger," I said, "our backyard "…"

"I know," he said. "I'm way ahead of you."

Our backyard was a weed jungle. It was a fire paradise. Dead brush stretched 5 feet tall, against rambling raspberry bushes and a stack of firewood. Even the vegetable and herb garden was overgrown.

It was a scary sight, having just watched fire consume the lots on Oak Knoll Drive — some with well-managed landscaping.

The next morning, my housemate, a landscape designer, enlisted his crew to clean up and clear out the yard. At the end of the day, a 6-foot-tall stack of cleared brush sat in the middle of the yard.

My housemate and I stood looking at it wide-eyed.

"Wow," he said.

"Yeah," I said. "Wow."

We feel lucky we had the time and resources to clear the brush. The Oak Knoll fire has served as a wake-up call to many other Ashland residents, said Chris Chambers, forest resource specialist with Ashland Fire & Rescue.

"It's definitely been an eye-opener," he said Wednesday. "There's nothing to say that this couldn't happen anywhere in town.

"All neighborhoods in Ashland should be rethinking how they're maintaining their landscaping and what kind of fencing and roofing they use."

We must assume responsibility for the vegetation that is in our yards, because it can pose a fire danger not only to our homes — but to our neighbors' homes as well.

In a city with a high fire danger, care should be taken to plant native, fire-resistant vegetation, Chambers said. Highly flammable plants, such as juniper and cypress trees, should be avoided. Plants should be spaced apart from each other and houses to prevent fire from traveling.

"You have to envision the mature state of the plant," Chambers said. "So you don't end up with this landscape that's really overgrown in five years."

Some of the most fire-resistant species are vegetable and fruit plants, as long as they are well-watered, he said.

So how about clearing out some brush and planting a garden?

You'd be helping your immediate environment by reducing fire danger and helping the global environment by eating locally. And the fruits and veggies would be delicious.

Chambers said he hopes residents will start changing their landscaping now — and within about a decade, neighborhoods will be filled with native, fire-resistant plants.

"My hope is that over time in Ashland, if people start replacing flammable plants with fire-resistant vegetation now, we could significantly decrease the possibility that a fire like Oak Knoll will happen again," he said.

So let's get on that. Let's get in our backyards and pull out the brush and plant gardens. Let's keep it up even after the homes on Oak Knoll Drive have been rebuilt and the landscape is no longer scarred from the fire.

Because I don't want to see another birthday cake from hell in an Ashland neighborhood. I had my fill on Aug. 24. And I'm still feeling queasy from it.

Let's eat produce from our gardens instead.

For a list of fire-resistant plants, see ashland.or.us/plants.

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

For past columns see dailytidings.com/ecologic.

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