ASHLAND — Five acres of dried-out weeds — chest deep in some spots — wave in the hot afternoon wind, entangling old machinery, burnt mattress springs and trees blackened by the Oak Knoll fire that swept through this overgrown field last summer before jumping Interstate 5 and destroying 11 Ashland homes.
The field is a glaring weak spot in fire prevention efforts by Ashland, where city officials, residents and others have worked to reduce fire danger since the Oak Knoll fire that ignited Aug. 24, almost one year ago.
The field along Washington Street is on land under Jackson County jurisdiction. The county doesn't require landowners to keep weeds and grass mowed, even when land sits next to property inside Ashland's city limits.
Parcels that are smaller than an acre in Ashland must be kept trimmed. Larger parcels must have a 15-foot mowed perimeter around edges and driveways, plus a 30-foot mowed perimeter around any buildings, Ashland Fire Marshall Margueritte Hickman said.
She said the fire department has tried to encourage everyone to follow the city standards — whether they are inside the city limits or not.
Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief John Karns said city officials have been talking to county officials about ways to reduce the danger on land outside the city limits, but county officials are worried about enforcement issues.
One strategy could be to have the county require landowners to mow grass and weeds in high-risk areas. The city of Ashland could be tasked with enforcing those rules, although it would have to find funding to take on the added burden, Karns said.
In the year since the Oak Knoll fire, Karns said, the Oregon Department of Transportation, the Oregon Department of Forestry and the Central Oregon Pacific Railroad have been cooperating with Ashland to reduce fire dangers.
This spring, ODOT and ODF teamed up to cut blackberry brambles, bushes and dead tree branches from ODOT land that runs behind the Oak Knoll neighborhood along I-5.
"That act really reduced the hazard in the Oak Knoll neighborhood," Karns said.
He said the railroad company has been very responsive this year about fire dangers along railroad tracks that run through town.
Ashland's relatively new Firewise Communities program — part of a national program to get residents to voluntarily take action on their own land — is thriving in the wake of the fire.
In June, the Oak Knoll neighborhood received a Firewise Communities designation for work that included cutting dozens of highly flammable cypress trees.
Three more Ashland neighborhoods are on the verge of receiving the national honor, and three additional neighborhoods are hard at work reducing fire risks, said Ashland Fire & Rescue Firewise Communities Coordinator Ali True.
She plans to begin work with another three neighborhoods in the coming year.
True said one neighborhood group on the west side of town has crossed city and county jurisdictional lines to reduce extreme fire hazards.
Blossom View Estates homeowners teamed with other landowners — including a person who owns a 5-acre lot outside the city limits that is not subject to city rules for reducing fire risk, she said.
"The individual voluntarily mowed his grass out of good will," True said. "It's one of the successes of the program. It brought all the players together. I didn't go knocking on their doors. They came to the fire department and said, 'We want to do this.' "
True is distributing $50,000 in grants — in chunks of up to $400 per property owner — for residents to trim fuels from their land. ODF helped Ashland win the federal grant money.
Fire officials said they have seen fewer problems this year with people not obeying city rules to keep grass and weeds mowed.
The Ashland City Council authorized spending $30,000 this year to pay for a summer weed-enforcement worker.
Karns said he will keep advocating that the city boost firefighter staffing levels, but realizes the economy makes that difficult.
Soon after the Oak Knoll fire, Karns recommended that the city expand its wildfire hazard zone, which mainly covers land high in Ashland's hills above Siskiyou Boulevard, where homes blend into the forest.
An on-the-ground study by Southern Oregon University students of fire hazards throughout town backed up Karns' recommendation.
But with the community embracing the voluntary Firewise Communities program so well, Karns said he is not seeking an expansion of the wildfire hazard zone for now.
A possible strategy for expanding the zone in the future could involve a tiered approach, with less stringent regulations in some parts of the zone, Karns said.
The city is able to require fire-resistant roofs inside the zone, among other requirements.
Karns recommended last year that the city require fire-resistant roofs on all new houses, and require that flammable roofs on existing houses be phased out over the next decade.
After further research, Karns found that state laws prevent Ashland from adopting such requirements. City officials plan further talks with state officials, he said.
Some houses burned by the Oak Knoll fire had flammable cedar-shake roofing.
If a fire does strike again, Ashland's emergency hotline, which has been overloaded during past emergencies, can now handle 100 calls at a time, thanks to upgrades. Messages on the emergency hotline can also be updated even as calls are coming in.
The city's emergency 1700 AM radio updates can stream on the city's website at www.ashland.or.us. Some residents in canyons can't receive the radio transmissions.
Beginning in September, the city will have a mass notification system — sometimes referred to as a reverse 9-1-1 system — up and running. Officials will be able to send emergency notices to residents via their home land lines, Karns said.
Officials will also begin a public outreach campaign letting residents know they can provide other contact information, such as cellphone numbers, work phone numbers and email addresses, he said.
The city of Ashland joined with the county and the city of Medford on the mass notification system, saving money for taxpayers. Other cities in the valley may also join.
Ashland Fire & Rescue has been training more often with nearby Jackson County Fire District No. 5. The two fire departments often help each other on medical and fire calls, and can now hear each other's dispatch messages, Karns said.
"Every time they're dispatched, we hear it. Every time we're dispatched, they hear it," he said.
Ashland's fire department was helped by a multitude of other fire agencies when it battled the Oak Knoll fire. Police officers and other city employees also aided in the evacuation and fire response.
The city's volunteer Community Emergency Response Team was also on hand to help. It has received additional training on dealing with emergencies over the past year.
Calls for help to CERT volunteers previously went out via a phone tree, but the volunteers can be notified of emergencies through the reverse-call 9-1-1 system beginning next month, Karns said.
"We can notify all of them with the push of a button," he said.
Karns said he is pleased with the amount of work the community has done since the Oak Knoll fire.
"It's been better than expected. There's still room for improvement, but I'm pretty happy with how Ashland has responded," he said.
Vickie Aldous is an Ashland Daily Tidings reporter. She can be reached at 541-479-8199 or email@example.com.