‘We have to rally to the challenge’
Imagine a billiard-table-size digital sand table perfectly mapped to Ashland’s topography. Emergency managers are gathered around the table simulating floods, earthquakes and wildfires, developing evacuation routes and disaster plans. This bit of technology, made by the Santa Fe-based company Simtable, is one of Stephen Gagne’s requests for tackling wildfire vulnerability in and around the city.
Gagne, chair of the Wildfire Safety Commission, presented a five-year program proposal containing 13 recommendations focused on wildfire mitigation to Ashland City Council during a study session Monday. Gagne first brought the recommendations to the outgoing council in November 2020.
During his presentation, Gagne highlighted a science-based roadmap that illustrates a path away from wildfire devastation and toward affordable long-term wildfire mitigation programming.
The challenge, Gagne said, is that success depends on community buy-in for a three- to five-year “sprint” of rapid adaptations.
“If we eliminate our city’s vulnerability to embers, the next Almeda-level threat might take out dozens of closely spaced homes, perhaps even hundreds, but not thousands,” Gagne said.
The Simtable is part of recommendation No. 10, geared toward increasing “frequency and intensity of evacuation training, planning and response,” totaling an estimated $75,000, including the table, associated software and staff time, according to council documents.
Simtable can replicate existing fires, offering first responders a real-time picture of fire direction and speed so they can determine where to allocate resources most effectively and share critical information with media outlets instantly, Gagne said.
The commission advised the city to view its recommendations as a “nonoptional insurance policy” to bolster Ashland’s physical and financial wildfire resilience in the future.
The 13 recommendations lay within five core categories: Fire Adapted Communities program activities, hazardous vegetation and fuels abatement, emergency response and evacuation readiness, Ashland Watershed fuels treatment, and fire prevention.
Gagne said much of the work, such as landscape alteration, will require financial assistance for some homeowners.
“Fliers and website information might produce sufficient change if we had 50 years,” Gagne said. “Ashland is going to be consumed by fire long before that if we don’t act.”
The commission projected $115,000 in one-time costs and more than half a million in annual costs over the next two to five years to fund the recommendations, tallied under the city’s central services budget. The most costly line items include addressing accumulation of hazardous vegetation in developed areas ($200,000 per year for five years) and increasing funding for the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project ($175,000 annually).
Gagne said $200,000 per year — $250 per acre in city limits — represents the bare minimum to cover needed work on Ashland properties. Tree removal on certain properties might cost thousands of dollars, he said, and without the appropriate financial means, those trees could place a neighborhood at heightened risk.
“What we know is that a significant pot of money is needed to help homeowners change their landscape,” Gagne said. “That money has to come from somewhere and we know the homeowners themselves don’t have it.”
A $3 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s hazard mitigation program is slated to come online this spring and will help to address the 1,100 homes identified at greatest risk in the city, Gagne said. Still, Ashland’s 7,748 other residences need a Plan B, he said.
Gagne asked for City Council assistance drafting a solution to fund wildfire mitigation strategies for low- and fixed-income homeowners.
A newly developed volunteer group organized to conduct one-on-one home and landscaping wildfire risk assessments is scheduled to undergo its first training in May, Gagne said.
“Ashland should certainly be congratulated for investing in wildfire preparedness over many years — and decades even — but yet we’re still not keeping up with the pace of the escalating risk, in part due to climate change,” said Wildfire Division Chief Chris Chambers with Ashland Fire and Rescue.
The commission’s top priorities — expanding the Fire Adapted Communities program, updating the Ashland Community Wildfire Preparedness Plan and filling a vacant communications and community engagement position — primarily increase capacity for communicating about wildfire preparedness with residents directly, Gagne said.
City Manager Pro Tem Adam Hanks said the recommendations will likely not affect the city budget currently in development. The document is intended to offer clarification about the Wildfire Safety Commission’s hopes for resource dedication looking ahead, whether internally or through grants and partnerships, he said.
City emergency operations stakeholders met Monday with the consultant for an evacuation study, to make final adjustments to the draft document, Hanks said, adding that he initiated conversations with Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley regarding an Interstate 5 emergency exit concept.
As far as disaster communications, Gagne said the fickle nature of fire movement combined with unpredictable wind makes a siren system unrealistic.
“In a fire situation, I suspect a siren would be the worst possible choice of notification — it would produce the exact result we don’t want, which is clogged roads everywhere,” Gagne said.
Evacuation should be specific and targeted at imminently affected areas, so emergency managers can provide “directional control” over where residents move during a chaotic situation, he said.
Establishing fire zones for warning purposes is part of the evacuation study, Hanks said. Based on simulations, the worst case scenario for evacuation in Ashland is a midday, midweek event in the autumn while school is in session — that’s the scenario emergency managers are preparing for, he said.
Extravagant emergency preparedness plans are often quickly reduced to knocking on doors, Hanks said, explaining an idea to equip citizen leaders in each zone with the skill and confidence to become part of the city’s communication circle during an emergency.
Hanks said the recommended strategies correlate to discussions about regionalization — Ashland’s contribution to managing large-scale emergencies could be the equipment and staffing outlined in the Wildfire Safety Commission’s plan, he said.
The commission has put forth what members believe must be accomplished, now it’s up to city staff and the City Council to determine how to achieve those goals, he said.
Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at email@example.com or 541-776-4497 and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.