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'Gold star' example of FireWise

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Over the last week, about 50 Fire Adapted Community officials from around the country collaborated with Ashland fire officials, hiked fire ecology trails in the watershed and visited the homes of residents in local Fire Adapted Communities.

Cities around the country take turns hosting the National Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network Workshop each year, and this year was Ashland’s turn.

Nick Goulette, executive director of the Watershed Center in Hayfork, California, said Ashland’s approach to wildfire mitigation and risk reduction is about as comprehensive as it gets.

He called Ashland the “gold star” example after seeing firsthand how the community, city and fire department work together.

“Community fire adaption is not relegated to one sector of society,” said Goulette. “It’s not just the fire department’s responsibility to help our communities live more safely in wildfire. ... We need to bring together all of the different institutions and community stakeholders that have a role and a responsibility together to cooperate and leverage their work.”

Wednesday afternoon, the visitors got a taste of Ashland’s community collaboration efforts. The group split in half to walk the White Rabbit and Red Queen trails to see some of the work the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project has completed. They ended at the Park Estates neighborhood, one of the newest fire-adapted communities in Ashland, to hear from residents.

Roger Pearce wears many hats in the community, but Wednesday he wore a sunhat and a button-down, short-sleeve shirt. He wasn’t acting as chair of the Planning Commission or a lawyer, but an Ashland resident and president of the Homeowner’s Association board for his neighborhood.

Although his subdivision was built in the 1980s and has always bordered the forest, it wasn’t until a year and a half ago that the community earned its FireWise certification, he said.

“We’ve had a couple of close-by fires and a couple of bad smoke years recently, and people have been more interested in it,” Pearce said. “Additionally, when you build a subdivision, you essentially clear-cut everything, but now it’s grown up.”

Pearce, while acting as a planning commissioner, was a part of the approval process for the Wildfire Mitigation Ordinance last year, so he understands the flammability of oil-rich trees such as junipers.

He said there’s lots of landscaping in his neighborhood that incorporate these highly flammable species because they do well on the dry hillsides, but it has caused much concern from the fire department.

He said the neighborhood was one of the most fire-prone in the city, so they were given a small grant from Ashland Fire and Rescue to get jump-started on all the work.

He said there’s a hillside with a couple of acres so steep that it isn’t buildable, so neighbor volunteers thin the trees and brush to keep it maintained. The neighborhood also must have an educational program and spend a certain amount on FireWise projects each year to maintain the certification. He said those projects could be individuals improving their homes or it could be a collaborative effort on shared spaces.

“We live in an area prone to wildfire, and the more we can make everybody’s home safer, the safer we’ll all be,” Pearce said. “A lot of it isn’t terribly expensive ... and you don’t have to look like Las Vegas to be Firewise. You don’t have to be paved down.”

Stephanie Stewart, a member of the FireWise Committee Task Force in the Park Estates neighborhood, said a fire-adapted community expert from the fire department gave her home a free evaluation in winter, and her family was impressed with the service.

“It was freezing when he came to visit, and he assessed the entire house,” Stewart said. “He showed us what was dangerous, and we learned a lot, then he provided us with a written report as a follow-up.”

“When you think of wildfires, you think of consuming fire, but you don’t think about the embers that fly every which way,” Stewart said.

An ember from a fire can travel nearly two miles and easily catch a house on fire if it lands in a gutter filled with pine needles or near the foundation of a house padded with bark mulch, according to the “Prepare Your Home” page on the city’s fire department website.

To see how quickly embers can engulf a typical home — in under three minutes — watch the video at the bottom of the “Ashland FireWise” page at www.ashlandfirewise.org.

Stewart said her family worked alongside her neighbors to create a safer space for their homes.

“We’re at the top of a gully, and fire will travel straight up a gully,” Stewart said. “We want to prepare for the possibility of a wildfire as individuals and as neighbors.”

One of those neighbors is Diane de Ryss, who said about 30 homes out of the 60-odd in the neighborhood are now FireWise. She said the patchwork of FireWise communities around Ashland will hopefully make a difference if a wildfire ever occurs.

“It would be terrific if we all could do this work, and really we just scratched the surface here,” Ryss said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

Chris John, owner and award-winning arborist at Canopy, LLC, said he’s performed a lot of thinning and maintenance in the Park Estates neighborhood. He said it’s important to call a professional when it comes to thinning tree canopies because trees can often be over-pruned, which can lead to poor health or even kill the tree.

“People are often fearful in general of the yard when it comes to removing dead branches and pruning trees, and we help assuage that fear, while still addressing that problem tastefully and still making it a beautiful part of the yard,” John said. “There’s no escaping the fact that we’re more prone to fires here, but there are simple ways to perform maintenance.”

Allison Lerch, Fire Adapted Communities coordinator at AF&R, said it’s important to shift the focus away from the fire department and let the communities of Ashland shine, because it is everyone’s responsibility to help protect the city from wildfire. She said a chunk of the responsibility falls on private landowners to make sure their homes are prepared, and ultimately that plays a large role in the safety of the city as a whole.

“We have 34 FireWise neighborhoods within our city, and although that only captures about 10% of the city property-wise, that’s about 2,000 landowners, or residents, who have engaged in some sort of risk-reduction activity,” Lerch said. “I think it’s that number that really speaks to the fact that we have 2,000 citizens who can also educate more people.”

To encourage residents to make their homes better adapted for wildfire, the fire department has launched a three-month campaign starting this month with “Prepare Your Home.”

Residents are encouraged to remove flammable materials from around their homes, and save them for free disposal Saturday, May 4, at the Valley View Transfer Station. Between 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., Ashland residents may drop off organic green debris. Recology Ashland will compost all materials.

For more information, see ashlandfirewise.org/cleanupday.

For a free FireWise assessment, call 541-552-2246. Due to high demand for this service, appointments are being booked about six weeks out, so Lerch suggests reading material online in the meantime. For resources, see Ashland.or.us/firewise.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Ashland Tidings / Jamie Lusch A National Fire Adapted Communities Learning workshop is held park estates neighborhood in Ashland.
Ashland Tidings / Jamie Lusch A National Fire Adapted Communities Learning workshop is held park estates neighborhood in Ashland.