Fire chief suggests the city redraw wildfire zone to include more homes

Ashland Fire Chief John Karns and the Forest Lands Commission sent a letter to the City Council Monday asking it to redraw the city's wildfire zone to include more homes, such as those in the Oak Knoll neighborhood.

The council is scheduled to discuss the proposal, along with other suggested council goals for this year, at its Tuesday meeting.

"I thought this is one thing the council could place as a goal, to evaluate the feasibility of redrawing the wildfire zone so that it identifies vulnerable properties based on a variety of factors, not just proximity to forestlands," Karns said.

"A good example is the Oak Knoll neighborhood, where building construction and fuel models allowed on the property can increase the risk of fire."

August's Oak Knoll fire destroyed 11 homes, becoming Ashland's worst residential fire in at least a century.

The current wildfire zone, which hasn't been updated since it was created in 1997, encompasses about 1,400 homes bordering Ashland's forestland and watershed, Karns said.

Ashland Fire & Rescue annually checks homes inside the zone to ensure they comply with the citywide weed abatement ordinance. Homeowners are eligible to receive grant money for brush clearing. Existing homes aren't bound by any further fire-reduction regulations, but new construction must abide by certain restrictions, including a ban on wood roofs, Karns said.

"This zone just allows us to control wildfires better and, in some instances, it can allow for more access to money," he said.

Karns would like to see the zone also include neighborhoods that border open fields, unmaintained county land and blackberry bushes, all of which pose fire risks. He also would like all boundaries of the zone to be extended slightly to account for wind-borne embers, some of which ignited Oak Knoll homes.

"We need to do something that takes into account wind-borne embers — that's just prudent," he said.

Ashland Fire & Rescue would need several months to study the city's neighborhoods to determine which areas should be included in a rezoning, Karns said. If the council approves his goal request, he hopes to have the new zone established a year from now.

Karns believes the zone should include more property in the city — but not a majority of it, he said.

The Oregon Residential Specialty Code allows cities to establish wildfire hazard zones based on natural fuels, topography and climatic conditions that pose a significant risk of a catastrophic fire, according to the letter Karns submitted to the council.

"The current wildfire zone needs to be reviewed with a greater emphasis on the effects of fire spread due to contiguous vegetation, fine fuels, and especially wind-borne fire embers," Karns wrote.

Expanding the wildfire zone might cause more Ashland residents to become prepared for a fire, he said.

"It really becomes a concern in the fire season," Karns said. "That's really when weed abatement comes in. Hopefully this would increase the awareness of homeowners."

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or

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