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Firewise program adds area outside Jacksonville

JACKSONVILLE — The Westmont neighborhood is better prepared for a wildfire after a Firewise effort to educate homeowners and make the area more fire-resistant.

City officials hope to expand Firewise, a national program, to other neighborhoods as well as maintain Westmont's designation with a new $10,000 federal grant through the Oregon Department of Forestry.

"The hope is that this sets a lifestyle, not to be depending on someone, but to realize that defensible spaces are very necessary," said Chris Arnold, who is chairman of a newly formed Westmont board and also Jacksonville Fire Department's public information officer.

Westmont, a mile west of downtown north of Highway 238, includes about 80 city residences in the area of Pair a Dice Road, Mary Ann Drive and Morton Way. There are also homes in the neighborhood on county land.

After forming a board in spring 2013, the neighborhood was assessed for dangers at the same time information was delivered on the Firewise program. A plan was then developed.

A small federal grant was awarded for work. Neighbors, state forestry crews, city firefighters and private contractors all took part in the efforts, which included a clean-up day April 25.

"It was a little bit bigger event than what we expected," said Arnold. A large Dumpster was filled, and two dump trucks were brought in to handle the excess debris.

"There's a lot of things the average homeowner is doing, then there's things that need more awareness," said Arnold. "A lot of folks first off are looking to the beauty of their property."

Many residents weren't aware that juniper is highly volatile, said Arnold, who compares it to having oil on a property. Blackberries are another danger. People like having them around for the fruit, he said, but the fire hazard is great.

ODF crews removed blackberries that had overgrown gullies in the neighborhood. ODF had cleaned up the area 10 to 15 years ago, said Arnold, but residents had let the berries regain a foothold. Some of the area's residents are now elderly, he said, and unable to do the maintenance.

Fortunately, the forestry department was allowed to go back into the area based on a former project, said Arnold. Some residents also received grants to have a private contractor do the clean-up.

"It's a motivating factor when they have free funds to do those things," said Jacksonville Fire Chief Devon Hull.

Westmont may be able to receive more grants, but the new emphasis will be on expanding the program.

"In order for them to maintain eligibility for the process, they have to continually maintain the neighborhood," said Hull. By meeting that requirement, the neighborhood may be eligible for future grants, said Hull.

Besides forming a neighborhood board, neighborhoods must develop action plans, implement them and oversee maintenance. The efforts must be documented, with an annual compliance report submitted.

Neighborhoods identified as potential Firewise communities include:

  • Cemetery North, Woodberry Lane to Gold Terrance Drive.
  • Coachman Hills, including Wells Fargo and Surrey drives.
  • Conestoga, including Laurelwood and Scenic drives.
  • Fifth Street, including Third Street and Daisy Creek.
  • South Oregon Street, including Hill Street.

Residents interested in starting a Firewise community or who want more information can contact Hull at 541-899-7246 or Firewise Coordinator Michelle Brown-Riding at 541-846-1460.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.