Burn notice: Thousands of local homes at risk
More than 106,000 homes in Jackson and Josephine counties are at risk from wildfires, according to a study commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service.
The study listed the top 50 communities in Oregon with the most housing units exposed to wildfire risk.
Jackson and Josephine County communities take up 23 of those top 50 spots.
With 29,340 housing units exposed to wildfire, Medford ranks third on the list prepared in late 2018 by Pyrologix, a Montana firm specializing in wildfire analysis.
Grants Pass is No. 8 on the list with 14,718 housing units exposed, edging out ninth-place Ashland, which has 9,853 exposed units, according to the study.
The study looked at both wildfire risk and the total number of exposed houses to create the ranking.
Merlin took the top spot in the state. It has 4,628 exposed housing units but a higher risk of burning than many other cities on the list.
The rural community north of Grants Pass was threatened throughout the summer and fall of 2018 by the Taylor Creek fire, which burned 52,839 acres and merged with the 175,258-acre Klondike fire.
For the study, houses were counted as being exposed to wildfire if they were on burnable land — which includes grass that dries out, bushes, trees and logging slash — or within 150 meters of burnable land.
Urban cores, irrigated farmland, bare ground and open water were categorized as nonburnable.
Not everyone agrees with how the cities were ranked.
“We don’t think the study is an accurate depiction,” said Medford Fire-Rescue Emergency Manager Melissa Cano.
She said east Medford is at risk because of its proximity to woodlands, but the city does extensive work to reduce wildfire fuels in the area.
“Medford is so high on the list not because of risk, but because of its large population,” Cano said.
Pyrologix compiled another list for the Forest Service that looked only at the probability that a community would burn.
On that list, Medford falls to 128th place in the state — last among Jackson and Josephine County communities.
Still, the city has battled major fires. A 2009 fire on the flanks of Roxy Ann Peak in east Medford burned 633 acres and threatened houses. Firefighters on the ground, helicopters and air tankers dropping massive loads of fire retardant stopped the blaze.
Residents said at the time that firefighting and forestry officials had kept in touch with the neighborhood over the years, instructing residents and requiring good access, brush-clearing, escape routes and water sources.
Dave Larson, Southwest Oregon District forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said he thinks the study’s methodology is valid.
For Medford, the study takes into account the city’s population and the wildfire risk along its edges, he said.
“It doesn’t mean the whole of downtown Medford is going to burn down,” Larson said.
Across the West, conditions are growing more challenging for firefighters with more homes in the wildland-urban interface, overstocked forests and a trend toward hotter, drier and longer fire seasons, fire officials said.
“The study helps reinforce and bring awareness to the community about conditions like urban sprawl into the interface,” Larson said.
Like Medford Fire-Rescue, Ashland Fire & Rescue questions the Pyrologix ranking that combines housing exposure with wildfire risk.
“It’s a surprise that Medford is higher than Ashland on the list,” said Forest Division Chief Chris Chambers.
Chambers said he wonders about the methodology of the study and how much Medford’s outlying areas — which do have higher risk — influenced the overall ranking for the Rogue Valley’s largest city.
However, Chambers doesn’t quibble with Ashland placing in the top 10 on the statewide list that looked at wildfire risk and housing exposure.
“It’s not a surprise that Ashland is on the list. We’ve always thought of Ashland as one of the highest risk communities,” he said.
Ashland plans to continue its aggressive strategy to thin wildfire fuels in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and other organizations, Chambers said.
The town owns forestland and also sits at the edge of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
Ashland is also threatened by fires that start in dried out grass and weeds. The city has an ordinance requiring vegetation to be kept mowed down, but the rule doesn’t apply to pockets of land that aren’t part of the city.
In 2010, the fast-moving Oak Knoll fire, started by a transient in dry weeds, jumped Interstate 5 and destroyed 11 homes near the Oak Knoll Golf Course in Ashland. Although all residents were evacuated in time, Medford Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief Mark Burns suffered permanent lung damage from the thick, toxic smoke and later died.
Multiple fire agencies had responded to help Ashland Fire & Rescue fight the fire whipped by hot August winds.
The same type of coordinated response stopped a July 2018 fire in Central Point that burned 97 acres of fields, brush and trees near the Bear Creek Greenway and Medford airport. Three homes and an outbuilding were damaged, and five outbuildings were destroyed. A homeless man died in the fire.
Senior living centers, homes, a veterinary clinic and multiple gas stations and hotels were among the buildings evacuated by local law enforcement agencies and Oregon State Police as the fire marched southeast toward the airport.
With 6,282 homes exposed to wildfire, Central Point ranks 19th on the list that combines home exposure and wildfire risk. It falls to 91st place on the burn probability list.
Cave Junction ranks 14th on the combined list and 20th on the burn probability list. It has 2,049 housing units exposed to wildfire, according to the Pyrologix study.
Cave Junction and the smaller community of Selma have been repeatedly threatened by megafires that spawn in the remote, rugged Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area.
Residents there have faced the almost 500,000-acre Biscuit fire in 2002, the 191,125-acre Chetco Bar fire in 2017 and the 130,258-acre Klondike fire in 2018.
Selma has 1,055 housing units exposed to wildfire and ranks 22nd on the list for housing exposure and wildfire risk. It moves up to 12th place statewide for burn probability.
At ninth place, Williams in the Applegate Valley is the local community with the highest burn probability rank. With 1,481 housing units exposed, it ranks No. 13 on the list that looks at both housing exposure and wildfire risk.
With so many Jackson and Josephine county communities placing high on both lists, Chambers said the study is a reminder that southwest Oregon is a wildfire danger zone.
It has thick forests like the rest of Western Oregon, but hot, dry summers like Central and Eastern Oregon, he said.
“And really, that’s like the perfect storm for us here in southwest Oregon,” Chambers said.
He said the study — plus the deadly wildfires that have ravaged California — should serve as a wake-up call.
Statewide, Bend has the most homes at risk, with 41,321 housing units exposed to wildfire. It ranks fourth on the list combining home exposure and wildfire risk, and 145th for burn probability.
Warm Springs on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Central Oregon ranks first on burn probability, and fifth for wildfire risk and home exposure, with 1,362 housing units exposed.
With the next fire season approaching, fire officials are urging residents to share in the responsibility to keep communities safe.
Larson asked people to use common sense year-round and be aware of restrictions on equipment use during fire season.
Debris burning that gets out of control and inappropriate equipment use — such as mowing dry grass on summer afternoons — are leading causes of fires sparked by humans, he said.
Fire officials also want residents to prepare for the next wildfire by reducing flammable vegetation around their homes and creating defensible space.
“We really have to deal with the ‘when’ — not ‘if,’” said Alison Lerch, Fire Adapted Communities coordinator for Ashland Fire & Rescue.