City staff, officials and residents grappled Monday with questions raised by proposed amendments to the city’s wildfire mitigation ordinance, ranging from whether a prohibited plant list would strip the city of its native conifers to whether homeowners wishing to expand could afford to comply with the new rules.
The two-hour forum in the Council Chambers was called to provide more information to city councilors and the public before the council votes on the proposed amendments to the existing wildfire ordinance, which would be expanded to include the entire city of Ashland.
The proposed ordinance has two main categories: a regulatory portion which would require new regulations for the entire city, and a voluntary portion which would encourage and possibly provide incentives for existing residents to modify their homes to be less susceptible to wildfire.
“Climate change is accelerating wildfire size and intensity all around us; we see it almost every day now,” said Chris Chambers, director of forestry. “Destructive wildfires are occurring throughout the city, outside of the currently regulated Wildfire Lands Overlay.”
Residents and fire personnel alike referenced the Santa Rosa Tubbs fire of October 2017, the most destructive fire in California history; Ashland’s Oak Knoll fire of 2010, which burned 11 homes to the ground; and the still-burning Carr fire in Redding as examples of what could happen in Ashland.
Essentially these amendments would declare the entire city of Ashland a wildfire hazard zone. Currently, it covers only about 1,400 out of 10,000 structures, but all homes and businesses in Ashland are at risk if a fire started anywhere in the city, Chambers said.
He used the Oak Knoll fire as an example: An ember that blew from the inferno of the house fires traveled 1,100 feet, and started a new fire.
Chambers said current regulations are very lax outside of the existing wildfire zone.
“We have no power to dictate what people plant around their houses or what the houses are made of. You can still put a wood shake roof in Ashland anywhere outside of that current overlay,” Chambers said. “Why would we allow for people to build with wood on their rooftops?”
The amendments would ban the use of wood shake roofs on new structures, require the removal of dead or dying vegetation within five feet of the new structure and require tree canopies, flammable plants and the like to be trimmed and thinned. There are exemptions to some sections of the ordinance, such as exemptions for trees that would have their health compromised by pruning.
Ashland resident Jeff White asked if the city could collaborate with a local contractor to provide a tree removal service at a lower cost. Mayor John Stromberg agreed that the idea should be investigated.
A prohibited plant list — which raised the most concern among audience members — is being recommended in the form of a resolution rather than an ordinance so that council could change the list. The list includes several common types of conifer trees, including Douglas fir, pine, cedar and sequoia.
Highly flammable plants and vegetation such as junipers and bark mulch are also on the black list. There would be exemptions to the rule, such as allowing species of sage and rosemary used for cooking to be planted a distance from homes. No plants on the list could be added within 30 feet of another structure and existing flammable plants within 5 feet of a new structure would have to be removed.
“I went to school for forestry,” Chambers said. “The last thing I ever hoped for was to be here saying we can’t plant any more conifers… There will be no discernible difference certainly in our lifetimes in the number of conifers in the city.”
The changes would apply only to new structures and plantings, unless an addition to a home exceeds 200 square feet.
Addressing a concern raised by Councilor Michael Morris, senior planner Brandon Goldman said the characteristics of historic neighborhoods in Ashland would largely be unchanged.
Goldman said there are roughly 50 to 100 new structures built annually on vacant lots and about 200 additions to current structures.
For new or rebuilt fences, the ordinance would require the final 5 feet connecting the fence to a structure to be of non-combustible material such as metal, Goldman said. An image of a burning home transferring the fire to the next home via a connected fence from the Santa Rosa fire was shown.
Audience members seemed split on the ordinance, with some suggesting the restrictions were not strict enough and some concerned that the regulations would alter Ashland’s character.
Fire Chief Michael D’Orazi said residents also should be concerned about the potential for increased fire insurance rates, because Insurance Services Office, Inc., which determines local insurance rates, takes into account risk factors such as fire danger.
The city is applying for a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant of $3 million to help subsidize some of the costs associated with the regulations, and to provide incentives for residents to improve their homes voluntarily.
For more information, see www.ashland.or.us/Page.asp?NavID=17583 to read more about the ordinance and wildfire hazard zone.
“What we’re trying to do, is as a community, wake up to the reality of fire,” Stromberg said. “And not only fire externally, and the smoke, but the potential for fire in our community … and we really want to become much more conscious of fire.”
The City Council will take up the proposed ordinance again in its business meeting from 7 to 10 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 21, in the Council Chambers at 1175 E. Main St.
Proposed prohibited plants
(The city’s proposal would make it illegal to plant the following, but would not affect existing plants.)
Arborvitae (Thuja sp.)
Cedar (Cedrus sp.) exception for prostrate or dwarf variety
Cedar/Cypress (Chamaecyparis sp.) exception for prostrate or dwarf variety
Cypress (Cupressus sp.)
Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesi)
Fir (Abies sp.)
Hemlock (Tsuga sp.)
Juniper (Juniperus sp.)
Pine (Pinus sp.)
Sequoia (Sequoia sp.)
Spruce (Picea sp.)
Yew (Taxus sp.)
Blackberry (Rubus armeniacus)
Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata)
Juniper (Juniperus sp.)
Manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.) exception for ‘Kinnikinnick’
Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) exception for ‘Compacta’
Rosemary (Rosmarinus sp.) exception for ‘Prostratus’. Rosemary plants may be
incorporated in landscaping when located further than five feet from a building or
Sagebrush (Artemisia sp.)
Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius)
Wild Lilac (Ceanothus sp.) exception for prostrate varieties
Grasses and Ground Cover
Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana)
Contact Daily Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at email@example.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.