Living with wildfire
A Southern Oregon University researcher has co-authored a study published this week in Nature that says people should learn to live with wildfire — much like living with earthquakes — rather than rely on fuels-reduction projects that only encourage people to build in wildfire zones.
Dennis Odion, an SOU research ecologist, was part of an international research review for this project through the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
(Correction: Odion's role at SOU has been corrected in this story.)
The study claims the debate over fuel-reduction techniques — clearing downed, woody material from forest floors to reduce flammable materials — is only a small part of a much larger fire problem in which communities need to learn to live with fire as a natural process and not a catastrophe.
Governments should plan development while taking fire hazards into account in the same way they require seismic retrofits of buildings to withstand earthquakes and require elevated homes built next to rivers to survive floods.
"There is an illusion that fire is containable," Odion said in an interview. "We don't want to give people the impression that they're protected because they're not.
"We need to recognize that fire is inevitable, like earthquakes," he said.
The review examines research findings from fire-prone areas in the United States, Australia and the Mediterranean.
The analysis examined different kinds of natural fires, what drives them in various ecosystems, the ways public response to fire can differ and the critical zones where development abuts forests or other natural landscapes.
The paper recommends adopting land-use and zoning regulations to restrict development in the most fire-prone areas and require fire-resistant construction that matches hazard levels.
In Medford, using fire-resistant materials such as concrete siding is part of a suite of recommendations landowners get when building in fire-prone areas such as along the east foothills and the slopes of Roxy Ann Peak.
But they are not requirements, Medford Fire Marshal Greg Kleinberg said. "There are no state mandates."
Kleinberg said city officials have considered such requirements in fire-prone zones.
"I wish we had something in place, but we haven't done that yet," Kleinberg said. "It's certainly something we can pursue, but it doesn't guarantee your house will survive."
Landowners need to provide "defensible space" free of brush and dry grasses around their homes to help protect them, he said. Kleinberg points to the 2009 grass fire that swept through 633 acres of the east foothills as an example.
That fire raced along the flanks of Roxy Ann Peak and threatened one home where the landowner had created defensible space, Kleinberg said. The flames ran out of energy as they approached the home, eventually burning around it, he said.
It helped make that fire one that did not consume any houses, Kleinberg said.
"The real goal is to prepare their property to survive a wildfire even without firefighter intervention," Kleinberg said.
The Nature paper also suggests neighborhoods should look at vegetation-management strategies and even evacuation plans.
Fuels-reduction efforts may improve the aesthetics of fire zones and create temporary jobs, but they represent "a safe position for policymakers" who appear to be helping keep neighborhoods safe, Odion said.
"People want that to be the solution," Odion said.
"We need to find a better way to protect people and there's no easy way to do that," he said.
Firefighters are trying that in Ashland, where programs include Firewise — creating fire-adapted communities — and heavy fuels reduction pushed by the city for the past two decades.
Chris Chambers, the Forest Division chief for Ashland Fire & Rescue, said the city is looking to expand its wildfire hazard zone to include the entire city after the Oak Knoll fire of 2010 was a grim example of that danger.
"We're looking to strengthen codes and apply them to a broader area," Chambers said.
"We have a multipronged approach and that includes strongly relying on people to do the right thing."