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Toto, we're not in Ashland anymore

It may go without saying, but even firefighters were taken aback by the ferocity and speed of the Almeda fire.

Communities up and down Oregon were simultaneously devastated by overwhelming fire spread and intensity in forests of all kinds (old growth, recently logged and everything in between). Though it’s tempting to chalk the Labor Day fires up to a somewhat predictable once every 50 years windstorm, think again. If we fail to internalize what happened that day as a dire warning sign of things to come, we’re going to suffer badly for it.

Climate and fire scientists predicted the uptick in burned area, especially in the previously referred to “wet forests” of Oregon, a few years ago when they forecast a 500% increase in annual burned area in the Coast Range and western Cascades and 300% to 400% increase for southwest Oregon by mid-century.

But, it’s only 2020, you say? That’s right, and it’s going to keep getting worse even if we stop contributing carbon to the atmosphere tomorrow (though much worse if we don’t).

California just experienced its first modern day “giga-fire” — a fire over a million acres. Areas burned just a few years ago in the North Bay burned again, and communities have been evacuated three times in some places just in the past five years. That’s what Oregon needs to prepare for, and we can. Ashland is particularly at risk owing to our forested setting, aged construction, and already dry and hot climate. This is not the Ashland of 10 or 20 years ago, and we must start acting accordingly.

Now, the good news. We can protect our families, homes, businesses, infrastructure and forests, and it doesn’t often take a lot of money, but it does take initiative and responsibility. There are approximately seven months before next fire season if we’re lucky, six if it’s like last year. In that time, here’s a list of proven effective ways to prepare:

1. Remove as much bark mulch as you can. Bark mulch was burning all over in neighborhoods during Almeda and lit many homes and businesses on fire. At least remove bark mulch from within five feet of homes, fences, outbuildings and decks. Leave it around trees and shrubs farther away to help save water. Composted material is much better than bark and rock is best.

2. Keep all leaves and needles cleaned up on your home and around your property. If you rake them up, either use the collection bags and have them hauled off via Recology, or compost them over the winter and spring. Lean, clean and green is the motto (just don’t overuse water).

3. Make your personal evacuation plan and practice it. Traffic plans are being worked on for the whole city, but if your own household isn’t ready, it won’t matter how many roadblocks are up and messages are sent. See www.ashland.or.us/evacuate

If everyone did just those three things in the next six months, we’d be far more ready for next fire season. There are many, many more things you can do, such as removing flammable plants, replacing old and dry decks, siding, and trim, and making your address more visible to first responders, just to name a few.

This year, we started a new one-stop-shopping website for all things wildfire at fireadaptedashland.org. Please visit the site for information, how-to videos, and even your home’s wildfire risk score.

Meanwhile, crews will be busy using “good fire” (the kind that’s a useful tool) during the wet and cold seasons to consume fuel in the forest. You will see smoke and likely smell smoke at times. It’s impossible to achieve the kind of fire safety we’d all like to see without controlled burns, so please accept our apologies ahead of time for any smoke. See smokewiseashland.org for info on protecting your health during smoky days, and you can sign up for burn alerts at ashlandwatershed.org.

Please reach out and help your neighbors (at a safe distance!) get work done or host a work party at your home and then at their home for camaraderie. You’re only as safe as your neighbors during a wildfire. We need you to make Ashland a truly fire-adapted community. We’re always here to answer questions and help you get started on your list of fire safety projects.

Chris Chambers is Ashland Wildfire Division chief.

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