Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief John Karns plans to propose new restrictions on flammable construction materials and landscaping in the wake of the Aug. 24 Oak Knoll fire that destroyed 11 homes.
"Wood shake roofs are allowed in Ashland except in the wildfire hazard zone," Karns said. "You could build a house today with a wood shake roof."
The wildfire hazard zone covers homes high in Ashland's hills, well above Siskiyou Boulevard. Landscaping and building restrictions provide extra protection for the houses there.
But the Oak Knoll fire and several grass fires that burned in lower Ashland this summer show that the rest of town is vulnerable.
In lower Ashland, there are no restrictions on the types of vegetation residents can plant next to their houses. Residents only have to follow weed abatement rules and keep their grass and weeds mowed, Karns said.
He plans to present ideas for new regulations on building materials and landscaping to the Ashland City Council in October after working with community development and public works staff.
'That could happen again tomorrow'
Karns said residents themselves are critical when it comes to protecting the community from fires.
"We need to view this as a partnership, and not have the view that the fire department will protect us from everything — because they can't," he said.
"Residents have to be a partner in their own fire safety."
Karns said he hopes people will remain concerned about fire safety even as the memory of the Oak Knoll fire fades from the minds of those who didn't lose their homes. People may be tempted to put off the work needed to deal with flammable landscaping around their homes, he said.
"That weather wasn't an anomaly. That could happen again tomorrow," he said.
Karns, who was hired as Ashland's fire chief in 2009, has an early track record of persuading the City Council to take steps to reduce fire danger. Soon after Karns took the job, the council on his advice adopted a citywide ban on the use of personal fireworks. He also quickly won approval for having firefighters regularly inspect businesses, churches, nursing homes, apartment complexes and other buildings for hazards such as disconnected fire alarms and equipment blocking fire exits.
Extra firefighters could have helped, Karns says
Karns previously warned that he believes that Ashland Fire & Rescue is understaffed.
He said he will continue to speak to the City Council and the Ashland Citizens' Budget Committee about his staffing concerns.
But Karns said he realizes the city cannot afford to add firefighters with its existing funding. Because Ashland Fire & Rescue has three shifts, the city would have to hire three firefighters to have one additional firefighter working at all times, he said.
Increasing the city's property tax rate to the maximum amount allowed by law still wouldn't bring in enough money to hire three firefighters, Karns said.
He said possibilities for more funding could include asking voters to pass a levy to supplement fire department operations.
In 1999, voters approved a $4 million bond to replace Fire Station No. 1 downtown. In May 2011, the city will ask voters to approve a bond of almost $3 million to replace Fire Station No. 2 on Ashland Street. Construction money from bonds can't be used for fire department staffing.
Karns said extra firefighters could have helped during the Oak Knoll fire.
"I think we would have still lost homes because of the intensity of the fire. I think I could have minimized the loss with more firefighters," Karns said.
He said volunteer and student firefighters can be used to augment staff forces, but that solution poses some problems.
"Volunteers are typically available evenings and weekends because they have jobs," Karns said.
Could firefighters have predicted the fire's spread?
The Oak Knoll fire started at about 4:35 p.m. on a Tuesday.
Not enough firefighters were available in the beginning to scout ahead and look for places where the fire could spot, Karns said.
Some residents have questioned whether firefighters should have predicted that the fire would jump from the west side of Interstate 5 to the east side, where it burned into the Oak Knoll neighborhood that borders the freeway.
"Firebrand travel is something we're concerned about," Karns said. "It's not entirely predictable. Traffic on the freeway may have made the air more turbulent."
He noted that the fire also spotted 1,400 feet forward in order to jump I-5.
"It traveled a long way to cross the freeway," Karns said.
With crews of firefighters converging on Ashland from around the Rogue Valley, enough firefighters arrived to get ahead of the fire on Oak Knoll Drive and cut off the blaze, Karns said.
They also got help from helicopter water drops.
Eventually enough firefighters were on the scene to send crews downwind to watch for flying embers, Karns said.
Ashland Fire & Rescue's practice of carrying two kinds of protective clothing paid off during the fire. Firefighters have light protective clothing — known as turnouts — for outdoor firefighting, and heavy turnouts for when they enter burning structures.
Firefighters were first dispatched to a grass fire on Washington Street, where the fire started, so they put on their outdoor turnouts.
On Oak Knoll Drive, the fire produced so much heat and smoke that commanders considered pulling firefighters off the street. That would have consigned dozens more homes to the fire, Karns said.
"Crews agreed to put on their structural turnouts and stay in the street. That is not a typical act to use structural turnouts outside. They are really hot and heavy and they really tax you," Karns said.
The Oak Knoll fire was contained at 8:30 p.m., four hours after its start.
Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or email@example.com.