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Participate in fire evacuation planning

It’s all about the planning.

Southern Oregonians followed the news about the Camp fire in Paradise, California, last year with mounting concern. Could it happen here?

The short answer is yes, but beyond that, how to prepare for an out-of-control firestorm near a populated community has emergency responders thinking ahead. That’s especially true in Ashland, where a city of more than 20,000 sits nestled against a steep forest and where one recent fire destroyed 11 homes before it could be stopped.

The Oak Knoll fire of 2010 jumped Interstate 5 after igniting a field of dry grass. In Medford last July, the Penninger fire that started near the Expo burned nine structures and forced the evacuation of Costco along with other businesses and homes as it charred 97 acres.

Medford is not immune to the danger of wildfire, but it has multiple escape routes, and it’s unlikely the entire city would need to be evacuated at once. Ashland is another story.

At the front of Ashland officials’ minds is how best to evacuate the town in case of a major fire. Fire Chief Michael D’Orazi and his department have been working with Ashland police and Public Works departments to evaluate the city’s evacuation and alert systems.

Signs installed in hillside neighborhoods direct traffic down to Siskiyou Boulevard, but D’Orazi now says that might funnel too many vehicles onto a single escape route, while blocking emergency vehicles from heading uphill if needed to fight the fire.

Officials plan a large-scale evacuation drill in May, probably focused on a part of town that faces particular obstacles. Ashland residents should be prepared to participate actively if asked to do so.

Eventually, it might make sense for the city to test alert systems, perhaps including audible sirens. Communities on the coast are familiar with tsunami warnings, and evacuation routes are clearly marked. Something similar should be developed for Ashland.

To put one frequently voiced concern to rest, the much-maligned “road diet” on North Main Street would not hinder a major evacuation. The road diet consists of stripes on the roadway confining motor vehicle traffic to one lane in each direction, with a center turn lane and bike lanes. In the case of a large-scale emergency evacuation, the road could easily become multiple lanes, all leading out of town.

It’s important for residents to participate in the process, familiarize themselves with evacuation routes and to prepare a personal evacuation plan, assembling important items in an easily accessible place, backing up photos to a portable device and planning to scoop up pets and take them along. Careful preparation will mean a much smoother evacuation should that become necessary.