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‘Know your zone’

Photo courtesy of Sooney Viani | June is evacuation preparedness month in the city of Ashland.
Ashland to adopt evacuation zones

Ashland City Council will hear a full report Tuesday on an evacuation time estimate study performed by KLD Engineering, addressing some outstanding questions about how to best evacuate the city in an emergency.

The primary outcome of the study: Ashland should be divided into 10 evacuation zones.

Wildfire Division Chief Chris Chambers said using evacuation zones is a best practice in numerous other communities and will help to improve communication and ensure a “more orderly and efficient evacuation process” in specific parts of town, rather than green-lighting a mass citywide evacuation.

A KLD Engineering consultant approved zone lines drawn by Chambers and former fire Chief David Shepherd, based on major transportation lines and landscape features.

Evacuation zone maps and information will be sent to every residence in Ashland the second week of June, tailored to the residence’s zone location, Chambers said.

An interactive map with address search, go-bag packing and evacuation checklists, summary of the evacuation study report and more preparation information can be seen at ashland.or.us/evacuate.

“A lot of our fires that we think about in our recent history did start in or right adjacent to the community,” Chambers said. “If we do have a fire that truly gets out of control and we can’t keep it small — that first 5, 10, 15 acres — there are many scenarios when traffic is going to be really intense under best-case scenarios, and the bottom line is we might not be able to get everybody out in time.”

Chambers said educational materials are intended to help residents organize their important items and plan appropriately ahead of an emergency situation. Residents should memorize their zone number and practice multiple routes out, which will be illustrated on the maps, he said.

Keeping one car full of gas throughout fire season and cataloging household items with their value are among homeowner recommendations.

“If you are prepared and mentally and physically rehearse going through an evacuation, it will pay off,” Chambers said.

According to the study, evacuating the majority of Ashland takes about four hours in the best-case scenario.

Approximately 2,000 people responded to a survey for the study and 40% said they would take more than one vehicle in an evacuation, which contributed to modeling the time frame, Chambers said. A structured evacuation differs from an emergency such as the Almeda fire that necessitates fleeing immediately.

The study showed evacuation time would decrease if each household takes only one vehicle.

“We know that it’s tempting to say, ‘We might not be able to get back here and we don’t want to sacrifice our second or third family vehicle,’” Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara said. “But if we don’t keep it to one car per household, then we’re doubling and tripling the number of cars that are on the road. We want to get as many people into as few vehicles as possible to minimize the traffic flow and give everybody a chance to get out as quickly as possible.”

The study also determined that reversal of North Main Street’s road diet would have a minimal impact on northbound evacuation times, and contraflow lane reversal in various situations and times of day is generally a poor idea in Ashland, O’Meara said.

“It takes a long time to set up, by the time you get it set up, which is very labor intensive, the evacuation is probably over anyway, and it just doesn’t save a whole lot of time,” he said.

One component of the study investigated turning the Valley View bridge into a four-lane roadway. Chambers said the idea would not significantly change the traffic situation with cars piling onto a single lane onramp.

The evacuation study cost $40,000 to produce, supported by state grant funding.

O’Meara said a certain degree of fluidity will persist in emergency situations that require dynamic responses, whether the crisis deals with a hazardous material spill or wildfire. When it comes time to flee, residents shouldn’t be waiting for direction from the city, he said.

“We, the city, we’re here to help people plan and prepare for this as much as possible, and when an event happens we will be there as much as we can,” O’Meara said. “People also have to take ownership of their own situations and not lean on the city totally to make these decisions. People have to stand up on their own and be prepared as well.”

Public Works Director Scott Fleury said he has discussed improved coordination for interstate closures and detours with the Oregon Department of Transportation, which is working to obtain approval from the Federal Highway Administration on an emergency access point to Interstate 5 southbound at the North Mountain overpass. A million dollars earmarked in House Bill 3127-1, currently under review by the House Special Committee on Wildfire Recovery, would support the project.

The Oregon Department of Transportation developed a working group of regional officials to meet in the spring and fall, with a focus on gleaning lessons learned from events that altered traffic patterns, Fleury said.

The Public Works Department will consider installing evacuation-related signage in neighborhoods identified in the study as “access impaired,” and integrating study results into the updated Transportation System Plan, Fleury said.

The city’s June evacuation preparation rollout follows a busy season of wildfire prevention and watershed maintenance work.

The Ashland Forest Resiliency project completed 1,482 acres of pile burning and 415 acres of underburning this year on private, city and federal lands — the closest AFR project partners have come to a 1,000-acre annual underburning goal. Restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic limited crews’ reach somewhat, Chambers said.

Work will continue through the second week of June using a $173,500 grant from the Oregon Department of Forestry, which Ashland Fire and Rescue was awarded to purchase neighborhood green debris bins, create defensible space and thin sections across 348 acres of federal, city and private land.

Grayback Forestry Inc. crews have been working in the Ashland watershed since early May cutting small madrone trees as part of a maintenance treatment. Blackberry removal has been completed in high-priority areas around the dog park, Verde Village, North Mountain Park Nature Center and Riverwalk development, Chambers said.

Crews burned all piles in those locations on one burn day in late April, easing anxiety about leaving piles near homes throughout fire season, he said. Fire season was declared May 12. A backlog of pile burning elsewhere in the city will be addressed next season.

Twenty large debris bins have been placed in neighborhoods, and five to six more may be installed because some residents agreed to cost share, said Katie Gibble, Fire Adapted Communities coordinator. The bins encourage residents to cut and prune hazardous vegetation and deposit the debris in their nearby bin.

A week of chipping will start June 7 in high-risk neighborhoods needing fuels-reduction attention, Chambers said. The ODF grant also supported forest thinning on three private properties and city property at the top of Terrace Street to create a fuel break for the neighborhood.

“Of all the work we do, underburning is the last stage of watershed and forest land work, and it’s arguably the most important stage,” Chambers said.

Thinning, pile burning and logging small trees with commercial value set the stage for underburning to restore the “long-absent role of mild fire” to forests for both ecological benefit and to reduce fire hazard, he said.

Crews focused this season’s underburning on the western border of Ashland along a strategic ridgeline, where wind patterns typically send fire toward the city. The Almeda fire of 2020 and Siskiyou fire of 2009 were rare outliers, Chambers said.

“That's our line in the sand on the edge of the community to have a really good chance at keeping a fire from broadsiding Ashland as well as getting swept up into the watershed,” he said.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.