A class of Southern Oregon University students that inspected Ashland neighborhoods is recommending that the town expand its wildfire hazard zone.

A class of Southern Oregon University students that inspected Ashland neighborhoods is recommending that the town expand its wildfire hazard zone.

Members of the spring Planning Issues class broke up into groups to walk the streets and look for dense tree growth, trees and bushes that were too close to homes, steep slopes and other hazards that could fuel a wildfire and hasten its spread.

"These things were not visible unless we actually went out and hit the pavement, so to speak," said SOU student Carter Franklin, who created draft maps showing areas where the students think the wildfire zone should be expanded.

The current wildfire zone encompasses about 1,400 homes in the hills high above Siskiyou Boulevard and Main Street. SOU students said the zone should be pushed down, closer to those key streets that divide Ashland.

The streets create natural fire breaks, they said.

Additionally, the areas above those roads have steep slopes.

"If you start a fire at the bottom of a slope, it's much more dangerous and much more likely to work its way uphill," Carter said, adding that extending the wildfire zone would put more areas with steep slopes inside the zone.

Not all of the hazardous areas in town were in Ashland's hills, the students found. They have recommended that wildfire zone pockets be designated in the Oak Knoll area near Exit 14, where a fast-moving 2010 fire destroyed 11 houses.

That area has overgrown vegetation, a ravine and dry grass and weeds in the summer. Many of the homes that burned also had wood shake roofs.

"We found neighborhood pockets as well as individual homes well outside of the wildfire zone that should be considered high risk because of construction materials, vegetation overgrowth and debris that could cause fire to spread more rapidly where wildfire is unexpected — as was the case in the Oak Knoll neighborhood," said student Rikki Pritzlaff.

The students delivered their recommendation to expand the wildfire zone to the Ashland City Council on May 17. If the council decides to pursue an expanded zone, that would require a multi-step process that would include notifying neighbors who would be affected and holding a public hearing.

If the council doesn't want to formally expand the wildfire zone, the students said the city of Ashland could increase education efforts, especially in the higher risk areas.

"Throughout this entire project, our class kept going back to the idea that educating everybody in Ashland was probably one of the most important aspects in preventing wildfire disasters," said SOU student Alissa Kolodzinski.

Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief John Karns recommended earlier this year that Ashland explore the idea of an expanded wildfire zone.

Forest Resource Specialist Chris Chambers and FireWise Communities Coordinator Ali True — both from the fire department — helped train the students who researched the issue.

City of Ashland Geographic Information System Coordinator Jason Wegner aided students with mapping, said SOU Associate Professor of Geography Pat Acklin, who teaches the Planning Issues class.

Chambers said the students did outstanding work.

"They did a very professional job and saved us many hours of research and GIS work," he said. "We're very appreciative of the work they did."

Chambers said an expanded wildfire zone could better protect Ashland by extending zone regulations to cover more homes.

City officials can't prevent people outside the current zone from replacing their roofs with flammable wood shake shingles, for example, he said.

"Anybody right on the edge of the wildfire zone could tomorrow change out their roof to a wood shake roof," Chambers said.

Ashland Fire & Rescue provides free home inspections to assess wildfire safety. To schedule an appointment, call Ali True at 541-552-2231.

To see if your home is in the existing wildfire zone, visit www.ashland.or.us/Page.asp?NavID=13511.

That Web page also contains information about how to reduce wildfire risk to your home and property, whether you are in the current wildfire zone or not.

Maps of the proposed expanded wildfire zone are in a draft stage at this point. Ashland Fire & Rescue may add or subtract areas from the proposed expanded zone, Acklin said.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199.