Residents innovate answers to wildfire danger
ASHLAND — After Sharon Spalding was evacuated from her home due to a wildfire in 2009, home fire safety became paramount.
In October 2014, Spalding was partially reimbursed through the Firewise USA program for removing large junipers around her property on Apple Street. She replaced the highly flammable and yellow jacket-infested shrubs with a butterfly- and bee-friendly, deer-resistant and drought-tolerant garden.
Following the Siskiyou fire, Spalding said, she cleaned up the landscape around her home of 45 years in the interest of safety and compliance.
“Once you have been evacuated, boy it becomes real to you,” Spalding said, noting her typewritten evacuation checklist.
Homeowners on the corner also ripped out their juniper, but other nearby properties feature blankets of the shrub from roadway to home siding — a source of concern for Spalding.
Still, one homeowner’s proactive efforts can positively impact their neighborhood by setting an example for others, said Brian Hendrix, Fire Adapted Communities coordinator. Removing fuel from a landscape can help slow a fire and set up an ”exponential effect” of action among neighbors, he said.
Over the years, various grant programs have come and gone targeting fire-safe landscaping activities, including home evaluations and risk assessments, said Chris Chambers, Wildfire Division chief. Quick-burning juniper is always a high priority for removal.
Juniper became popular in the 1970s and 1980s as a low-cost, low-maintenance and drought-tolerant plant, Chambers said.
Ashland’s prohibited flammable plant list was last updated in 2018 and can be found online at fireadaptedashland.org. Prohibited trees, shrubs and grasses cannot be planted within 30 feet of a structure.
Ashland’s Firewise urban landscaping guidelines include avoiding fire-prone conifers along property lines, planting fire-resistant plants as “visual screens,” using nonflammable structures for climbing plants, creating a rock or concrete fuel break, replacing bark mulch with rock, planting moisture-rich plants, and keeping vegetation watered and well maintained.
A newly secured $3 million pre-disaster mitigation grant channeling Federal Emergency Management Agency funds will allow for cost-sharing partnerships with homeowners to remove flammable vegetation and the last remaining wood shake roofs in town, Chambers said.
Ashland banned new wood shake roofs in 1994. The final 21 fire-hazardous roofs out of roughly 7,000 will be cycled out soon with help from the grant, Hendrix said.
Risk assessments gathered in 2017 and 2018 created a map of the highest-risk homes in Ashland. A reassessment process is in development to measure the quantity of fuels-reduction on properties as a result of grant programs and individual action, Hendrix said.
“We can say that with over 35 Firewise communities in town, we have been able to get a lot of work done,” he said. “The fact is, there’s still a lot there. It’s vegetation, it grows back, so it is a continuous battle.”
Educating the public, plant nurseries and landscapers about the best plants — those that are deer-resistant, drought-tolerant, flame-resistant and pollinators — is a high priority, he said.
Ashland has more Firewise neighborhoods than any other municipality in the country. Still, the efficacy of the program is limited by a lack of requirements for compliance or participation, Chambers said.
“Even with as many Firewise communities as we have across the city, we’re still only covering a small percentage of Ashland from an area or per capita standpoint,” he said.
Two years ago, Ashland Fire & Rescue staff breached capacity to manage 35 Firewise neighborhood programs and transitioned to a model of self-governance, by which each community files its own annual reapplication for the program, he said.
“Historically, when we set up these Firewise communities, we had more grant funding that could help get dollars into these communities to do initial actions and removals,” Hendrix said. “That funding source is dried up.”
Hendrix said expectations of self-generated action within Firewise communities increased with a decline in grant funding. Some communities responded to their new autonomy with action plans and strong neighbor-to-neighbor outreach, he said.
Passing the torch of stewardship to individual Firewise communities allowed the fire service to shift its focus to evacuation zone outreach, other grant applications and management, he said.
Thirteen Firewise neighborhoods applied and received $500 grants from the National Fire Protection Association and State Farm Insurance for a clean-up day in May.
Hendrix said as the community works toward a baseline understanding of what to plant and what hazardous fuels to remove, drought-tolerant, well-spaced, fire-safe, selectively watered vegetation will become the norm.
“Moving forward, it’s going to be more of an intelligent process of planning and figuring out what does work,” Hendrix said.
In addition to vegetation, hardscaping poses considerations for landscape composition — where to place a pathway as a fire break, for example, Chambers said.
“Firewise plants aren’t fireproof,” Chambers cautioned. “Hot fires can burn even the best plants, especially if it’s a neighbor’s house on fire that’s exposing your house to a lot of heat.”
Rob Cohen, owner of Ashland Landscapes, managed juniper removal and drought-tolerant planting on Spalding's property. Cohen has eight years of experience with the U.S. Forest Service and 38 years in landscaping and irrigation under his belt, providing the knowledge to develop an automated fire protection sprinkler system for his fuels-dense residence in the Ashland hills.
Cohen’s sprinklers — strategically placed in nine zones — cover the deck, roof and surrounding brush, and he can turn them on remotely in case of an evacuation. The system functions on an irrigation controller with battery power, independent of city power.
Cohen said he has contracted to build fire protection sprinkler systems for Ashland residents. The roof system costs roughly $3,500 to $4,000 to install, but each project is unique to the size and shape of the house, he said.
For his own sprinklers, Cohen focused on the roof, where pine needles constantly drop from surrounding trees and accumulate as flammable material in a difficult-to-reach location. The 360-degree sprinklers are placed on corners, to catch the roof and those “fine fuels.”
Based on Hendrix’s interactions, the fire service is “on the fence” about automated sprinkler systems. The type of system, weather conditions and method of activation contribute to each system’s efficacy.
Chambers said applied water is only effective within the hour that fire comes to a property. If the house isn’t wet when the fire arrives, the systems lose their usefulness, he said. Highly flammable fuels like pine needles and bark mulch dry out within an hour.
If all Ashland homes acquired automated sprinkler systems that ran for hours ahead of a fire, Chambers said he would have concerns about depleting the water supply without leaving crews enough to fight fire.
On windy days, like conditions the day of the Almeda fire, sprinkler water may be blown away from the house, Hendrix said. Many home systems don’t have sufficient water pressure, and the Talent Irrigation District is seeing more frequent shutoff times and dry spells.
“It’s good that private citizens are trying these things, but the water supply is a question to have because not everyone can have these,” Hendrix said. “We just wouldn’t have the water supply or the water pressure to have those and hydrants working.”
“As long as people keep trying to figure it out, there’s potential,” he continued.
Chambers said he plans to ramp up education and outreach to nurseries and landscaping businesses to encourage a fire-adaptive approach, but ultimately, consumer demand will drive the availability of home-hardening equipment, supplies, products and services in the regional marketplace.
Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4497.