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Ashland preps for extreme fire danger

Jackson County Fire District volunteer firefighter Steve Parks cools a burn pile fire off Dead Indian Memorial Road in Ashland.
Fire chief says community faces tough fire season

Newly appointed Ashland fire Chief Ralph Sartain said efforts to mitigate wildfire risk this year were thorough, but the Rogue Valley is in for a tough fire season.

Fuel dryness is about two weeks ahead of last year, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry. The 2018 Taylor Creek fire started under similar conditions and burned 52,936 acres, Sartain said.

“Our fire season is going to be really hard,” he said. “We encourage all Ashlanders: Be ready, understand your evacuation route and do what you can to protect your home, because we are only available to respond for the fires — to knock the fire down the best we can. We can’t do evacuation; we can’t protect your house once the fire is going.”

More information about home hardening and fire season preparation can be found at fireadaptedashland.org.

Ashland City Council unanimously appointed Sartain as the permanent fire chief at its July 6 business meeting. Sartian served as acting and interim fire chief following former chief David Shepherd’s retirement Nov. 1, 2020.

Ahead of fire season, crews completed about 2,400 acres of pile burning and underburning on city, federal and private land to reduce wildfire hazard, according to Sartain’s fire season report to City Council.

“We do get a lot of complaints from people with the smoke, but it is really for the protection of this community,” Sartain said.

City departments collaborated to remove blackberries on nearly 10 acres of city, parks and private lands and the installation of 10 green bins in Ashland neighborhoods prompted the removal of 500 cubic yards of flammable material.

Ashland is the second community in the state to adopt a wildfire hazard mitigation code for new residential construction, Sartain said. Ashland adopted section 327.4 June 1, focused on best practices for ignition-resistant building.

A recent meeting of Ashland Fire & Rescue, Jackson County Fire District No. 5, Colestin Rural Fire District and Cal Fire addressed gaps in communications across the state border, Sartain said, with a goal to link Cal Fire to Emergency Communications of Southern Oregon so AFR and District 5 can quickly dispatch resources to any fire event in the Colestin Valley.

Councilor Stefani Seffinger said several members of the public have expressed concerns about potential fire danger associated with illegal camping and campfires in Lithia Park.

Sartain said as of July 2, the Oregon Department of Forestry advised open fires are prohibited, including charcoal, cooking, warming and campfires, except within designated areas in campgrounds.

Once ODF declares extreme fire danger in Ashland’s geographic area, the fire department can issue an official fire ban, he said.

“We are very aware of it, the police department is on top of it, and then once we go to extreme … there will be no more fires in the fire rings and that will answer a lot of the concerns,” Sartain said.

City Manager pro tem Adam Hanks said Ashland Parks and Recreation preemptively closed fire rings in Lithia Park in anticipation of the impending shift to extreme fire danger.

As of Thursday, fire danger for the Southwest Oregon District of ODF was “high.”

Slots remain open for the car camping program at North Mountain Park, where Lithia Park campers are directed to relocate, Hanks said.

“We’re relocating them, but they are not prohibited and kicked out of the community,” he said.

As some community members question why Ashland has not initiated water curtailment, Sartain said leaving more water in the system provides security, but may prove counterproductive if residents allow vegetation to go dry.

“It’s really a fine balancing act,” Sartain said. “If you don’t need to water it, don’t water it. But also, don’t let it totally die out where it creates a problem under our forest canopy, especially up on the hillsides.”

On June 30, as temperatures soared into record-setting triple digits, the city reached 6 million gallons of water usage — an unsustainably high amount, Hanks said. Water usage July 4 totaled just less than 5 million gallons. A two-week average of 5.3 million gallons is “not bad,” but still 1 million gallons above the ideal, he said.

Talent Irrigation District water will remain available through July. The city does not plan to pump TID this season and will rely on the Talent-Ashland-Phoenix intertie to ease drawdown from Reeder Reservoir, Hanks said. TAP usage is slated to begin late in the week of July 12.

If daily water use averages continue to top around 4.5 million gallons, staff leadership will ask the City Council to take steps to curtail demand, Hanks said. In the past, public educational messaging has successfully reduced water usage without implementing mandatory curtailment periods or issuing penalties for high water consumption, he said.

Talent, Ashland and Phoenix collectively received a $3 million state grant for capital improvements to the TAP system.

More information about water-wise landscaping and budgeting limited water can be found at ashlandsaveswater.org.

City Council unanimously approved the purchase of two new ambulances for $470,635 — about $129,000 under the budgeted amount for both — to replace two retired ambulances in AFR’s fleet of five.

Some vehicles in the fleet have run five years longer than the industry standard lifespan of 10 years for budgetary reasons, Sartain said. Increased maintenance costs and downtime associated with extending each ambulance’s lifespan exceed costs to replace ambulances every eight to 10 years, he said. “First out” vehicles take on about 70,000 miles per year.

“We were down to two ambulances just recently,” Sartain said. “We can’t operate this way.”

The chosen ambulances — preordered from the 2022 Ford lineup — fulfill equipment requirements for AFR’s all-hazards response format and will arrive in fall of next year, he said.

Councilor Paula Hyatt, highlighting Sartain’s dedication to identifying the right vehicles at the best price, long-term vision and responsible fiscal stewardship, said with more calls for service reported in 2018 during prolonged smoke, allowing ambulances to degrade is not an option.

“I think our community is really wanting us to look at their safety right now,” said Councilor Stefani Seffinger in a motion to approve the ambulance purchases. “They’re afraid with the fires, they want to know that we’re doing the best we can in emergency situations, so I think that this is a very proactive way to show the community that we’re understanding what they’re telling us.”

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