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Flammable plant list clarified

I believe there are some misunderstandings being accidentally disseminated on the Daily Tidings Aug. 10 editorial pages.

The first is in the paper’s editorial, “Plant list obscures goal.” The editorial states that “the rules wouldn’t apply to additions unless they exceed 200 square feet ... so why adopt a list of banned plants that won’t affect most residences?”

While the ordinance applies only to new homes and remodels, the plant list does potentially affect all residences, because it applies to all new plantings, city-wide, not just remodels and new homes. (It would not apply, however to any of Ashland’s existing vegetation unless adjacent to new homes or remodels.) The prohibited plant list was deliberately not included in the proposed ordinance to ease future revisions without requiring a change to the ordinance.

The logic behind the prohibited plants list is simply, let’s not plant any more highly flammable plants near homes. They all increase and accelerate the spread of wildfire from home to home.

Additional misunderstandings appear in Jim Falkenstein’s guest opinion, “Proposed wildfire ordinance overreacts.” Falkenstein states that there will be a plant “reduction” and suggests that the results of this ordinance would be to make Ashland eventually look like “its sterile, gray-pavered plaza.”

The plant list is not really about removal. It does not (now or ever) require cutting down existing trees around existing homes unless they are dead or dying and the homes are being remodeled.

It’s true that the ordinance would require the removal (or replacement) of a few trees, but only in two sensibly limited situations. First, removals might be required during new home construction — but only in the rare cases where lots being developed already have highly flammable trees close enough to the new homes to pose a significant fire risk.

Second, during significant remodels, while the ordinance requires dead or dying flammable vegetation to be removed, it only applies to healthy plants or trees within 5 feet of the newly remodeled areas of the home. This 5-foot zone is often disrupted during construction anyway, and is one of the most critical areas when wildfire embers are in the air.

There’s also nothing in the ordinance prohibiting replacing flammable trees with other kinds of trees. This includes trees close to homes, other than some common-sense pruning rules to prevent branches from damaging or igniting roofs.

Falkenstein suggests leaving these decisions up to homeowners. If each homeowner’s landscaping only affected their land, this could be a reasonable way forward. Unfortunately, as we have seen in other communities, one person’s poor choices can be devastating to neighbors. Additionally, many of Ashland’s new homes are initially landscaped by developers.

I agree with Falkenstein that our Firewise program is very important to Ashland. It plans to gradually expand, but its lack of enforceable standards and purely voluntary nature don’t assure city-wide fire protection. That’s a major criticism of the program by some fire professionals.

To help preserve our town’s evergreen character in conjunction with the new ordinance proposal, city staff is already in discussion about exploring new plantings of additional conifers and other “prohibited” plants in areas throughout our town that are safely distant from homes, including our many parks and other open spaces. The plants list is almost certainly not perfect, but we believe it is a good and necessary first step in reducing Ashland’s wildfire risk. The proposed list and ordinance are also just the first tier in a larger strategy we’re working on to reduce wildfire risk.

Stephen Gagné is chairman of the Ashland Wildfire Mitigation Commission.