Last week my Firewise travels took me to the city of Ashland and other communities in southern Oregon. I was fortunate to meet with the state Firewise Liaison - Kris Babbs (Oregon Department of Forestry); Ali True (Firewise Communities Coordinator); Chris Chambers (Forest Resource Specialist); John Karns (Fire Chief); and Margueritte Hickman (Fire Marshal); as well as many other representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Department of Forestry, City Council and the City of Ashland Firewise Communities Commission.
The City of Ashland Fire Department has been very busy since the devastating 2010 Oak Knoll Fire that destroyed 11 homes in less than an hour. Chief Karns was hired a year before this tragic event, immediately put his understanding of fire prevention and mitigation to work. After the Oak Knoll Fire he introduced the Firewise Communities/USA® recognition program to the City and hired a Firewise Coordinator. This initiative could not have turned out better. Ali True who was hired as the
Firewise Coordinator has proven to be a true a true inspiration for Ashland’s Firewise Program and the proof speaks for itself. In just over a year since Ali was hired the City of Ashland now has 9 Firewise Communities! The smallest is 2 ½ acres to the largest of 40 ½ acres in size, and yes the neighborhood around the Oak Knolls area is now a Firewise Community too.
So what is the secret to such success you ask of a City of 20,000? That is the question I asked of the people on the ground doing the work, the citizens that live within the Firewise Communities of Ashland.
Here is what they told me:
- You have to understand that you have a wildfire risk and it is everyone’s responsibility to do something about it because fire knows no boundaries.
- The Firewise Program should start from the ‘ground up’, not the ‘top down’, meaning the homeowners need to take on a leadership role and develop the program from within versus being forced by government to embrace this program. This ‘ground up’ empowers citizens to help themselves.
- Firewise community members did say where government can help and often does is to support a Firewise Community Coordinator position where a person like Ali True who has a wonderful personality and is a “people” person can engage the community promoting the benefits of the Firewise Communities/USA program. Without this community position, the homeowners did not feel the program would have been successful.
- Another important ingredient of this successful recipe is access to grant money. Community members said that seed money usually in the form of a “cost-share” program through state or federal partners was extremely helpful. One recommended method to utilize this resource was for residents to reduce the fuels on their property by thinning and cutting brush and then using the grant to help fund the chipping, mulching and disposal of the waste vegetation. There were other innovative ways shared by homeowners, with the same objective of reducing the fuel loading and creating defensible space around homes and common areas within the community. The net outcome being the creation fuel breaks between homes and neighborhoods resulting in overall community wildfire risk reduction. In addition to completing the major work through the grant, it is also important to stress the need for ongoing maintenance activities by individuals around their homes, as this will ensure that wildfire risk is kept low and is especially important activity during the fire season.
So why does the City of Ashland have more Firewise Communities than any other city in Oregon? They understand that their neighborhoods are vulnerable to wildfire, and that Firewise is a “grass roots” program promoting personal responsibility. Also that there needs to be some local advocate, who is educated in wildfire and has the ability to create local partnerships between government agencies and homeowners. And last, but not always necessary in every situation; grant funding to assist communities to help offset some of the vegetation mitigation cost.
So what is next for Ashland Oregon you may ask? Fire Department officials say that there are three more Firewise Communities/USA recognition site applications in the mail and three more neighborhoods are in the process to become recognized as a Firewise Community/USA site. Oh, and the Mayor, Fire Chief, Fire Marshal and the Ashland Firewise Sparkplug Ali True are talking about how to create a larger coalition to represent more community, business, and government members to move forward towards a Fire Adapted Community!