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Ashland blaze had makings for catastrophe

ASHLAND ' A Monday afternoon fire that destroyed a barn could be just the sort of blaze that authorities fear may trigger a large wildfire in the hills above Ashland in summer.

Flames were shooting through the roof of the two-story barn before a city public works employee noticed them about 3:40 p.m. along the 200 block of Granite Street, abutting some brushy hillsides deemed the most hazardous locales for spreading wildfire.

Two Ashland fire crews quickly attacked the blaze, and it took 15 firefighters about 20 minutes to tackle the fire and keep flames from spreading into adjacent wildlands.

Ashland Fire Chief Keith Woodley credited recent rains with dampening the grass and brush, which would be dry and inviting the embers this summer.

It could have had a different outcome if it was late August, Woodley said. In late summer, this would be bad news.

The two-story barn was used for storage, but had become a recent target of vandalism from kids who recently have taken to hanging around and even smoking cigarettes there, said owner Karen Kahn, whose residence is several yards uphill from the barn.

I'm suspicious that it was accidental arson by teen-agers, Kahn said.

The fire's cause was still under investigation, and no financial loss was available Monday, Assistant Fire Chief Dave Hard said.

The barn abuts an area recently cleared of some brush and dead wood as part of the city's aggressive attempt to reduce wildfire danger within its 2,600 acres of Wildland-Urban Interface between neighborhoods and uphill Forest Service lands in the Ashland watershed.

Armed with a &

36;242,000 National Fire Plan grant, the city is systematically trying to disarm the most dangerous of the interface lands. Thick brush on these lands in part prompted the New York Times in 2000 to name Ashland one of America's most likely spots for a devastating wildfire.

Brush was cleared to within a few feet of the barn this past winter, and brush piles created by work crews were less than 40 yards from the structure.

Fears are that a fire started in the urban area could race quickly through the interface and into Rogue River National Forest land that federal foresters say is in dire need of brush-clearing.

When you have that volatile a wildland fire situation, it doesn't take much of a fire to become an out-of-control wildfire, said Marty Main, a consulting forester hired by Ashland to work on reducing the interface's fire danger. It can happen pretty quickly.

Main said much of the Granite Street area was deemed an extreme hazard, but the recent brush removal near the barn likely reduced the current risk to moderate.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail