Mar 21, 2019
How Ashland Passed a Wildfire Ordinance (Hint: We Removed Our Ordinance Blinders)
By: Chris Chambers
The danger of designated wildfire hazard zones is that they inherently consider some areas as “out” of the zone of risk. The 2009 Siskiyou Fire and 2010 Oak Knoll Fire in Ashland, Oregon, burned in exactly those types of “out” areas.
These fires got the wildfire and residential communities talking, and fast. There was discussion of all sorts of regulations within what we hoped would be an expanded wildfire risk zone, including a list of plants that would be prohibited during new plantings. At the time, this all seemed very doable to me (Alison), but I was also still new in my position and just beginning to understand the politics of adopting or changing an ordinance.
Ten years later, and we’ve finally redefined our wildfire hazard zones, and what should happen in them. But getting that policy passed required thinking about more than policy. It took working with new partners (have you ever invited a beekeeper to a wildfire-resilience meeting?), and an emphasis on residential outreach. Here’s how we did it.
First, Ashland Fire & Rescue submitted a new wildfire planning ordinance that included expanding the Wildfire Lands Overlay (think “WUI”) to encompass the entire city. The Ashland Planning Commission swiftly rejected it. They weren’t necessarily against the ordinance as it was written, but more so, they were concerned that it placed an unfair burden on new construction and additions to solve the wildfire problem. So, Ashland Fire & Rescue went back to the drawing table to develop a strategy for the 8,000 homes already built in the city.
For the next 18 months, a working group (formed by the mayor) saw this process forward. Planning Commission, Tree Commission, Wildfire Mitigation Commission, Planning Department and Ashland Fire & Rescue staff gathered monthly to tackle wildfire issues related to the built environment. We worked through tough discussions about how to reduce the wildfire risk in Ashland while preserving both the quality of life for residents and the appeal to tourists. The main theme of these meetings was that an educational focus on wildfire was the best bet for community buy-in, and that regulation like the wildfire ordinance was just a piece of the bigger fire-adapted puzzle.
Ashland Fire & Rescue then began a sidewalk risk assessment project, surveying the entire city (using the Intterra database system). This gave the ad hoc group a data-driven, visual gradient of where our risk was the highest. Based on the data, the group agreed that Ashland Fire & Rescue needed to work with the residents facing the highest risk.
Through additional research, we realized that we also needed to collaborate with other interest groups, especially Water Conservation and Ashland’s Bee City USA subcommittee. Each group, including us, had their own recommended plant list and some recommendations went against others. The interest groups met and created a plant list that included pollinator friendly, drought tolerant and fire-resilient plants suited for Ashland. Lastly, a surprising level of support from the City Council and Planning Commission was expressed for the Firewise USA® neighborhood program and our free home wildfire risk assessment program. We called this suite of activities, along with other related programs, Fire Adapted Ashland.
When it was time to bring the ordinance (which now included the prohibited plant resolution for all residences, not just new construction) back to the Planning Commission in 2018, we were quite pleased that it passed and moved on to the City Council. Unfortunately, the council was not able to move the ordinance forward without having us answer some questions first, most of which pertained to the implications on homeowners insurance that the expanded wildfire hazard zone would create.
For the next four months, staff researched and answered the councilors’ questions, and on September 18 of last year, the City Council approved the ordinance with a unanimous vote. That was a proud moment for Ashland Fire & Rescue and city planning staff, but to be honest, the moment was very brief, as our work was about to get even busier.
In October 2018, wildfires in California were ramping up (to say the least) and the urgency to continue advancing all aspects of wildfire mitigation in our area wasn’t letting up. Ashland Fire & Rescue applied for a $3 million Pre-Disaster Mitigation grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist residents with the cost of defensible space and wood-shake roof replacements. Meanwhile, requests for our free home assessment program had tripled, and Ashland now had 33 active Firewise USA sites, the most for any one fire department jurisdiction in the nation.
Ashland Fire & Rescue expanded its web-based education and created outreach materials that unpacked ordinance language into more digestible information for residents. Staff will continue our outreach with presentations to real estate agencies, contractors and nurseries this spring.
One thing that we know is that people were listening during this process, and when Sneak Preview Magazine’s Best of Ashland list came out on January 4, “Setting up a fire prevention ordinance” was listed under the “Best thing government has done in the last year” category. And, 94 percent of those surveyed were in support of the ordinance. We know that this is just one slice of the fire-adapted pie, but we learned a great deal along the way and hope that other communities can learn from our process.
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