Ashland officials on Tuesday put off yet again an ordinance that would create a citywide wildfire zone and impose restrictions on vegetation to decrease the town’s risk of wildfire.
The wildfire mitigation ordinance has been in the works for four years and has been approved and recommended by various city bodies, including Planning, Wildfire Mitigation and Tree commissions. The ordinance has been discussed in 13 public meetings and three open houses, according to city planners.
The ordinance would require new structures to meet fire-safe requirements and expand the wildfire hazard zone to include the entire city.
Nancy Nelson, Ashland resident and survivor of an apartment fire, encouraged the council to hasten its deliberation.
“Does Ashland want to be another Santa Rosa? Another Weed?’ Nelson asked. “I mean Medford’s burning. Homes are already being lost and we are very vulnerable here … I would love to see (the) council stop nitpicking and pass this ordinance with godspeed. We do not have time. Fire safety and prevention saves lives. These firemen and women are my heroes … Please take them seriously.”
Shannon Downey, co-chair of the Forest Lands Commission, disagreed. She made it clear that she was speaking in the public forum as a citizen. Downey works with the U.S. Forest Service, has a master’s in fire ecology and many years of experience in the field.
“I am both knowledgeable and sympathetic to these causes, nonetheless, I do not support this ordinance as it is written,” Downey said. “I believe it goes too far and not far enough.”
She said some items on the prohibited plant list, when maintained correctly, do not present a huge risk, and the focus of the ordinance should be on structures because houses are the main fuel source for a fire in a city.
Though Mayor John Stromberg agreed the ordinance should be tabled for now, he supports reducing the city’s risk of wildfire.
“While we can’t make ourselves completely safe from wildfires of every kind, we can reduce opportunities for ignition and generally do a better job of protecting ourselves from a variety of lesser types of fires, which constitute the overwhelming majority of conditions and actual fires,” he said.
The concerns addressed at the City Council meeting were discussed again at the regular meeting of the Wildfire Mitigation Commission Wednesday. Alison Lerch, Fire Adapted Communities coordinator for Ashland Fire & Rescue, said that the reason the ordinance is focused on the vegetation in town is because that is what the city can regulate — because of state law, the city does not have jurisdiction to regulate all building materials.
Stephen Gagne, chair of the commission, said that some conifer species could be maintained with proper irrigation, but that watering cannot be supervised in any way by the city.
One concern of several city councilors was the prohibition of any new plants on the proposed list within 30 feet of any structure. Most property lines in Ashland don’t extend 30 feet away, so that would essentially make the entire city off-limits to those plants.
Gagne stressed that this does not mean these existing plants must be removed, it only means that more flammable plants should not be added to the city.
Some mandates of the ordinance are: removal of dead or dying vegetation and removal of any prohibited plants within five feet of new structures or 30 feet from the furthest extension of any addition to a home of 200 square feet or more; no new planting of prohibited plants within 30 feet of any structure in town; no combustible materials within five feet of new structures; new fences connecting to a structure must be non-combustible within five feet of where they attach; trees must provide a 10-foot clearance between the tree canopy and new structures and must be pruned to provide eight-feet clearance from the ground; existing trees must be pruned to not touch a structure and to provide 10-foot clearance from chimneys. There are exceptions to pruning trees is if it will harm the health of the tree. If 50 percent or more of a roof is replaced, non-combustible materials must be used.
Educational resources, videos and checklists will be made available if the ordinance is approved.
Councilor Mike Morris was concerned that these new regulations would considerably alter the characteristics of historic areas of town. At the wildfire mitigation meeting, various commissioners commented that current vegetation would remain and, once it dies and needs to be replaced, plenty of other options will be available.
Commissioner Tracy Peddicord said that just because this is the current view of town now, doesn’t mean that it has to remain that way forever, especially if that view presents safety hazards.
A few councilors were also concerned that this plan was too demanding but still might not be significant enough to create change in fire prevention.
However, Division Chief of Forestry Chris Chambers emphasized that this ordinance is only one piece of a larger comprehensive plan, and that on its own the ordinance might not create much change, but when added to the other fire safety programs, it could significantly decrease the wildfire risk.
“It almost seems a moot point to go through the history of why we need this when there is a towering column of smoke lingering over town, when we’ve just been threatened significantly by the Klamathon fire, and many residents on the outskirts of Ashland were forced to evacuate, and many areas in Central Point and Medford are right now going through a significant fire ... This is such a real issue for Ashland,” Chambers said.
Ultimately, the council was concerned that the public was not aware of these significant possible changes and requested Fire & Rescue host another open house and address any concerns that arise.
Contact Daily Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at email@example.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.