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How Much Wildfire Risk is Too Risky?

There have been many thoughts and outright questions since the terrible wildfire in Paradise, California, about Ashland’s wildfire risk. So could Ashland be another Paradise? The same questions were also posed by Ashlanders after the 1991 Oakland Hills fire (the Tunnel fire), and then-Fire Chief Keith Woodley even wrote a commentary on the first Ashland Fire & Rescue website (ever!) about the similarities between the Oakland Hills and Ashland’s hillsides. Ever since, Ashland has been working hard to reduce our wildfire risk, but we can’t eliminate it, and we still have a long road ahead.

The similarities between Paradise and Oakland are more striking than between Ashland and either community. However, make no mistake that we live in the woods, or within an ember’s reach from there. Not to mention the Bear Creek and Ashland Creek corridors, both sources of fuel and potential fire as evidenced by last summer’s Penninger fire along Bear Creek in Central Point.

Fortunately for us, we don’t have the severe wind events (Diablo or Santa Ana winds) that most of California experiences, but we do get dry east winds in the fall, like the day of the Siskiyou fire in 2009, and our “normal” up valley winds on hot summer afternoons, which are bad enough when it’s well over 100 degrees.

Of the required elements of fire, there’s only one we can change, and that’s fuel. Broad scientific agreement points to managing fuel in our forests as a bona fide means of reducing wildfire intensity. It won’t make fires go out, but it has been shown beyond a doubt that flames are reduced in size and intensity after well planned and ecologically implemented thinning of smaller trees, shrubs, and dead wood.

This must be followed by controlled burns to both reduce the overall fuels on the ground, as well as maintain future growth and dead wood accumulation. Not to mention that our forest was adapted to frequent, low intensity fires for millennia!

The Ashland Forest Resiliency Project has been forging ahead on this front for nine years now, and the City and Parks have been managing our forestlands for 24 years! We’ve reduced the risk of a severe wildfire in our municipal watershed, to critical wildlife habitat, and to our community itself, but is it enough? Not yet, and maybe not for many more years, but it’s getting better all the time.

Burning will continue and expect some smokier days as we use fire on the ground to proactively reduce our risk in April, May, and early June as safe conditions allow. See ashlandwatershed.org for more about our work.

While reducing the flammability of the forest is an important goal in risk management, the flammability of our own homes and buildings is equally, if not more, important. Managing home fire risk is hard and sometimes expensive work. We’ve inherited thousands of wooden structures, flammable landscapes, and the ongoing cleanup of leaves, dry grass and needles that litter rooftops and yards. It’s still potential fuel, though a different kind. And there’s a surprising amount of easy work you can do while planning and saving for larger projects. April kicks off our Wildfire Preparedness Campaign to give you the tools to do those simple things to reduce your risk. Examples are cleaning out gutters, removing anything flammable from within five feet of your house, removing all dead material from plants, sweeping up leaves and needles all around your house and particularly from underneath decks and overhangs. Removing flammable plants is important in that first 30 feet around your home. All that information and more is at ashland.or.us/wildfireprep for you to access at your leisure.

Now is the time to start that spring cleanup as you dust off the lawnmower and eye those clippers.

We all have to work on our own pieces to own, and lower, our wildfire risk. We’re working on our part, are you working on yours?

Chris Chambers is the Forest Division Chief for Ashland Fire & Rescue. He can be reached at chris.chambers@ashland.or.us.

How Much Wildfire Risk is Too Risky?