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Disaster-relief plans portend doom in valley

Four area towns — Ashland, Eagle Point, Rogue River and Shady Cove — have written disaster-relief plans, identifying their biggest hazards and what to do about lessening dangers before they happen.

The Natural Hazard Mitigation Plans make the cities eligible for grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to lessen impacts of disasters — floods, landslides, wildfires, drought, windstorms, severe winter storms.

Most of the towns were placed at medium to high risk for fires, floods and storms, and have been shaping response plans for decades, with the caveat that volcanoes and earthquakes also can happen, said Ashland Fire Chief John Karns.

The study shows Ashland with a 90 percent risk of wildfire and landslides and 82 percent on drought, compared with much lower scores on these for the county as a whole. "Ashland has a greater exposure to wildfire and flood because it's next door to forest," said Karns. "And drought is a problem because we get all our water from Reeder Reservoir. An earthquake could also affect the dam and water supply.

"Earthquakes are equal opportunity offenders," said Karns. "They had one in Klamath Falls. The Cascadia Subduction Zone runs border-to-border and has a big fault slip every 341 years, on average. We haven't experienced one since the European influence here, and we're due for it. It could happen tomorrow. We don't know. It would be up to 9.0 on the Richter scale, and it would be 6.5 to 7 here. It absolutely will cause structural damage."

Protecting against quakes with seismic retrofitting is staggeringly expensive, but Karns said that as Ashland prioritizes its most vulnerable buildings, FEMA mitigation grants could help get the process rolling with affordable prices.

Whether human-caused or sparked by lightning, wildfires pose a big threat to Ashland because it has lots of new homes on steep, forested slopes. The watershed hasn't had a big fire since 1959, leading to growth of underbrush, which the town battles with its $4 million Ashland Forest Resiliency Project.

Jackson County adopted the NHMP in 2006 and requires member cities to file an addendum every five years, said Michael Howard, the grant liaison director with University of Oregon. Medford and Central Point have their own plans, not under the county.

Ashland's report, put together by the city and many community organizations, is primarily for outreach and community education and preparation, said Howard.

"It helps the community identify projects to work on to make it safer and more resilient," he said, "and gives the community a rationale about why to apply for FEMA grants, which they can apply for now, before the disaster."

In Rogue River, Public Works Director John Krawczyk wrote the response plan. "We identified flood and fire as the obvious hazards," he said. "I don't see very much we need to get grants for up front. Most of our efforts are educational, like raising awareness about the floodplain."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.