Oregon Department of Forestry crews are taking chainsaws to blackberry brambles, manzanita shrubs and dead tree branches behind dozens of homes in the Oak Knoll neighborhood this week to try to prevent the spread of another catastrophic fire.
After last August's Oak Knoll fire burned 11 homes in about 15 minutes, neighborhood residents decided they needed to better protect themselves.
"That fire really woke us up," said Elizabeth Sherbow, who lives a quarter-mile from the fire's footprint. "I was watching the smoke go up and realizing how close it was to our house."
Sherbow saw four houses ignite during the fire — Ashland's worst residential blaze in at least a century.
After the smoke cleared, she and her neighbors teamed up to make the Oak Knoll area the city's first Firewise Community, which means it has created a plan to become more fire-resistant and is eligible for federal grants to help carry out the work, said Ali True, the city's Firewise Community coordinator.
"They realized they wanted to do something to be prepared, so they wouldn't suffer the same kind of consequences," she said.
Eight Oregon Department of Forestry firefighters removed brush and chipped tree branches on the quarter-mile stretch between Interstate 5 and homes in the 1000 block of Oak Knoll Drive Thursday, as part of the Firewise plan.
"One of the hazards we found was the fuels growing on this land," True said. "Even if the homeowners did all the right fire-resistant landscaping, this area would still be a problem."
The land is owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation, which doesn't have the resources to clear the brush in that location, she said.
The city, which is organizing the Firewise program, teamed up with ODOT and ODF to get the land cleared.
In addition to removing highly flammable brush and blackberries, workers are taking out ladder fuels, such as the lower branches of trees, which can cause a fire to escalate quickly, True said.
The project is paid for with Title 3 funds, which are federal grants distributed through Jackson County for fire-prevention work, said Brian Ballou, ODF fire prevention specialist. The fuel reduction should be completed by Wednesday and is expected to cost about $6,000, he said.
Oak Knoll residents are clearing brush on their own property and on communally owned paths, Sherbow said.
Her home already has been landscaped to slow the spread of a fire, but since her property borders the brush growing along I-5, she didn't feel she could breathe easier until it was cleared Thursday, she said.
"It actually looks better now," Sherbow said. "We're more exposed to I-5, which isn't the most delightful, but it's better to be safe."
Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or firstname.lastname@example.org.