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Phase out all flammable roofs, fire chief proposes

City Council to consider recommendations, which would apply to new and existing homes
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Dan Thomas assesses the damage to the garage of his Oak Knoll Dr. garage where the shake roof collapsed during the August fire. file photofile photo
 Posted: 2:00 AM October 21, 2010

In the wake of the Oak Knoll Fire, Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief John Karns is proposing that all new homes in Ashland have fire-resistant roofs and that flammable roofs on existing homes be phased out within 10 years.

The proposals are part of a series of recommendations that likely will be considered by the Ashland City Council before the end of the year.

The Oak Knoll fire burned 11 homes, causing more than $3 million in property damage and making it the worst residential fire in Ashland in more than a century.

Learn more or schedule an assessment

3 To read more details about Fire Chief John Karns' proposals, visit

3 To view photos and read about how fire sprinklers limited damage in Ashland homes that had fires, visit


3 To schedule a free assessment of fire danger on your property, call Ashland Fire & Rescue Firewise Communities Coordinator Ali True at 541-552-2231. The assessment includes a prioritized list of voluntary steps you can take to reduce fire danger, such as pruning bushes and trees.

Some of the homes that were destroyed had flammable wood shingles. With the help of helicopter water drops, firefighters were able to stop the advance of the fire at a house with a fire-resistant roof.

Karns said that when an ember lands on a flammable wood shingle roof, the consequences can be disastrous for that house and its neighbors. "You have what is virtually a small lumber yard on your roof. The amount and size of embers a wood shake roof puts up really do endanger the houses downwind of you," he said.

Ashland already requires people who build in the Wildfire Hazard Zone to have fire-resistant roofs. The zone is located high in Ashland's hills, where homes meet the forest.

Karns said that while the forested hazard zone has received a lot of attention, the Oak Knoll fire showed that all 6.5 square miles of Ashland are at risk.

Allegedly started by a homeless man, the Aug. 24 fire began just outside city limits on undeveloped land covered in dry grass and weeds. It then jumped Interstate 5 near Exit 14 and tore into a neighborhood within city limits. Ashland saw other grass fires this summer, although firefighters were able to put those out before they could destroy homes.

Karns acknowledged that phasing out flammable roofs on existing homes within 10 years would be costly for many residents. Most roofs last longer than 10 years, so some people would have to replace their roofs more quickly than they otherwise would.

Replacing a flammable roof with nonwood Class A roofing materials would cost between $6,000 and $20,000 or more, depending on the size of the house and other factors, Karns said.

He said the fire department likely will choose a number of homes as examples, get specific information about roof replacement costs, and present that data to the council.

Karns suggested there could be hardship provisions for those who can't afford to replace their roofs. The city could be more lenient if the homeowners had taken other steps to reduce fire risk on their property.

Karns also is proposing that Ashland Fire & Rescue work with the state fire marshal and the State Building Codes division to either require or allow local jurisdictions to mandate fire sprinklers in new homes and in homes that are remodeled.

Unlike fire alarms that are triggered by smoke and can go off for minor problems such as burned toast, Karns said fire sprinklers are triggered by extreme heat and won't go off on accident and cause water damage.

"That's a common, common concern almost everyone has," he said.

For a new home, installing a sprinkler system would cost about $1.50 to $2 per square foot. Costs for homes with ornate ceilings and trim could be about $3 per square foot, Karns said.

He also is recommending that the council approve an outreach and education program to encourage fire-resistant landscaping and vegetation management.

The city could appoint residents to a new Firewise Commission and seek a Firewise designation for the town. Firewise is a national program that emphasizes local solutions for wildfire safety.

Ashland Fire & Rescue already has a Firewise coordinator on staff.

Additionally, Karns hopes to establish formal vegetation management agreements with the Oregon Department of Transportation, Jackson County, Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Oregon and Pacific Railroad.

The fast-moving Oak Knoll fire burned on land under county, city and ODOT jurisdiction.

Many residents have expressed concerns that land along the railroad tracks running through town isn't maintained adequately.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or

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