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Ashland leaders consider their priorities

With 2020 bringing one crisis after another, Ashland leaders are facing the responsibilities of immediate response, aftermath management and criticism regarding perceived flaws in each post-emergency narrative.

Following the Almeda fire, Ashland City Council is looking ahead to years of regional recovery and convoluted chains of multi-level agency direction.

During a business meeting Tuesday, the council merged emergency declarations for wildfires and the coronavirus pandemic with the intention to release information about both incidents through one public information officer — to the media and the public. Council ratified the extension of a state of emergency through Oct. 20.

“As we only now know, with the fire now 100% contained and back in capable hands of our local fire districts and departments, this was a completely unique and devastating event,” Interim City Administrator Adam Hanks said. “This was really a regional emergency and will be a regional recovery.”

Hanks highlighted grassroots community efforts as reinforcements for recovery, along with local administrative guidance and state, regional and federal resources, staffing and funding. However, neither can succeed wholly independently.

“We don’t want to impede those grassroots, community, peer-to-peer solutions, but we also don’t want to give any false pretenses that their work will somehow necessarily feed up and be the regional work,” Hanks said.

Outgoing fire Chief David Shepherd said that with fires burning around the state and pulling resources, his crews were left largely on their own in the beginning.

All but two Ashland firefighters, who evacuated their own families, responded to the incident, including off-duty firefighters and administrative staff.

On the policing side, 10 officers and one community service officer responded and fruitlessly attempted to fight fire with extinguishers before transitioning to evacuations, police Chief Tighe O’Meara said. Ashland police initiated an arson investigation after the first fatality was discovered alongside the Bear Creek Greenway about a mile from the water treatment plant.

After evacuations, police duties shifted to a support role — patrolling Talent and Phoenix to defend against looting and other negative behavior. In the coming days, several APD officers will be assigned to residential areas to escort residents in and out of where their homes stood, O’Meara said.

Thirty detectives from across the Rogue Valley and a state arson investigator have convened a major death investigation to follow leads and canvass the Quiet Village area.

“Until we have reason to believe that it was accidental and it was not intentional, we’re going to treat it as a criminal investigation and respond appropriately to any evidence that we find,” O’Meara said.

Events unfolded so quickly that outreach assistance to homeless people along the Greenway did not occur, he said.

Several Ashland city leaders said that gridlock during the evacuation was not ideal and should be a “major point of discussion” going forward, especially regarding when to shut down interstates during a massive fire episode.

“We know that we are going to see more things like this, even though we’re talking about it as a once in a generation event,” Councilor Tonya Graham said. “Climate change is pushing us toward having more of these things.”

Hanks recently met with state representatives to initiate such discussion, he said. For now, the focus remains on directing aid to municipalities, while big-picture infrastructure overhaul edges into the picture.

After agencies examine tactical operations and discuss what could have been done better, mid- and long-range planning will shift toward major structural flaws, he said. For example, about 10 semi trucks sat abandoned on the freeway, presenting an unusual problem for gridlock with no good options for alternative evacuation routes, Mayor John Stromberg noted.

While some residents criticized the effectiveness of the city’s opt-in emergency alert system, Ashland Fire and Rescue Wildfire Division Chief Chris Chambers said the Nixle community alert system was an invaluable resource during the fire. Subscribers nearly doubled from 8,168 the day before the fire to 14,892 the day of.

The system has been used for COVID-19 alerts, fire and now for notifications regarding toxic levels of smoke, which exceeded monitoring capacity on the air quality index at over 500, Chambers said.

Some Ashland Fire and Rescue resources are helping on the Obenchain fire but most have returned to Ashland to respond to small fires and other calls. Home foundations are hazardous and could still be burning or smoking beneath the floor, Chambers said.

“You could end up up to your knees in hot ashes and getting severe burns,” Chambers said of recklessly walking on burned properties.

For Ashland police, the crises of 2020 have brought some priority shifts, though some remain constant in the police chief’s mind.

“COVID brought me telling the police officers to lay off the camping enforcement,” he said. “It brought that conversation that this is not what we need to be hunting for right now, so give the prohibited campers some leeway.”

After the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and ensuing Ashland protests, O’Meara turned his attention to a call for greater community engagement to resolve a strained relationship between police and marginalized community members, especially Black and brown people, he said.

Wildfires brought new strain as at least one officer and a campus safety officer lost their homes, however his focus remains consistent in the long-term — straying from a “heavy hand of justice” approach. Each serious crisis is worthy of dedicated attention, but immediate crises inevitably pass and entrenched social problems remain.

“My focus recently has been and will remain to be community engagement and building better relationships with people who feel marginalized,” O’Meara said. “COVID is something that we have to navigate — it’s not going to be here forever, the fires won’t be here forever ... the community relationships will be here forever.”

File photoThe Almeda fire burns Sept. 8 in Ashland.