One Western town’s solution to wildfires? Community.

Andy Nelson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Kit Colbenson of the U.S. Forest Service poses outside Ashland, Oregon, where tree thinning and brush clearing have reduced fire danger.

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As the West’s infernos outflank firefighters and overrun fuel breaks, Ashland, Oregon, has emerged as a leading light for its sustained, communitywide approach to wildfire prevention.

Since the late 1990s, acceptance among Ashland’s residents of the need for collective vigilance has grown in tandem with the number, scale, and intensity of infernos across the region. A strong consensus for practical measures to reduce fire risk reflects their cleareyed perspective that neither magical thinking nor ever more firefighters will avert catastrophe. 

Why We Wrote This

As wildfires haunt the American West, Ashland, Oregon, has emerged as a leader in forest management. The city’s bipartisan approach hinges on a cooperative ethos that mitigates both fire risk and ideological divides.

“We try to help residents see that their own safety is linked to their neighbor’s safety,” says Brian Hendrix, the communities coordinator of Fire Adapted Ashland. “When everybody does a little, a whole lot gets done.”

The emphasis on collaboration has drawn together the city, U.S. Forest Service, and conservation groups to restore the town’s watershed. The innovative initiative has enabled the partners to treat 13,000 acres of land through prescribed burning, selective logging, and brush clearing.

“I won’t ever say we’ve got it all figured out,” says Chris Chambers, the wildfire division chief for the Ashland fire department. “But there’s been a commitment to finding common ground.”

A municipal water tank built into the forested hills above Ashland offers postcard views of the mountain valley town on clear days. This warm September morning is not, alas, such a day. Wildfires burning elsewhere in Oregon and to the south in California have blurred the blue skies, turning the city into a soup bowl of ash-gray smoke.

Standing atop the storage tank, Chris Chambers points toward Hald Strawberry Park, visible through the haze about a half-mile away and encircled by homes. Drought has browned its grass and many of its pine and madrone trees. The parched land presents a fire threat to the town’s 21,000 residents – and, he explains, another chance to better protect them from the flames.

“I want to burn that whole thing. It’s an island of fuel,” says Mr. Chambers, the wildfire division chief for the city fire department, who wears a black face mask against the nose-stinging smoke. He intends to request approval from Ashland officials to treat the 25-acre park with prescribed fire to remove dead and excess vegetation. “There’s a choice: We can burn the land on our terms, or we can let nature burn everything – and we won’t like the effects.”

Why We Wrote This

As wildfires haunt the American West, Ashland, Oregon, has emerged as a leader in forest management. The city’s bipartisan approach hinges on a cooperative ethos that mitigates both fire risk and ideological divides.

The prospects for his plan appear bright in a town that over the past quarter century has emerged as a leading light in the American West for its sustained, communitywide approach to wildfire prevention. Since the late 1990s, acceptance among Ashland’s residents of the need for collective vigilance has grown in tandem with the number, scale, and intensity of infernos across the region. A strong consensus for practical measures to reduce fire risk reflects their cleareyed perspective that neither magical thinking nor ever more firefighters will avert catastrophe. 

Andy Nelson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Chris Chambers, wildfire division chief with Ashland Fire and Rescue, looks out over a 16,000-acre forested watershed that the city has been protecting from fire by thinning trees and brush.

“Calling these huge fires of recent years natural disasters – they’re very much not natural disasters,” says Mr. Chambers, who joined the fire department in 2002. His genial resolve in advocating for preemptive action exemplifies the cooperative ethos that has gained his hometown a national reputation for wildfire safety. “We have to think of these fires and climate change as human-made disasters and realize we can unmake them. And, really, we have to if we want to live in the West.”

This summer delivered more proof of that charred reality, with the state’s third-largest blaze on record burning 413,000 acres in a national forest 80 miles northeast of Ashland. Fires scorched 1.2 million acres statewide last year – the second-highest annual total in Oregon history – as the city endured a harrowing near miss when a blaze ignited along its northern edge the morning after Labor Day.

Propelled by ferocious winds, the Almeda Fire gutted the neighboring towns of Talent and Phoenix, leveling 2,500 homes. The calamity brought into tragic focus the principle of shared responsibility that Mr. Chambers and other fire safety officials promote as they seek to lower wildfire danger and enhance forest health.

The emphasis on collaboration has drawn together the city, U.S. Forest Service, and conservation groups to restore the town’s watershed, a heavily forested area that slopes down from the 7,500-foot peak of Mount Ashland. The innovative initiative has enabled the partners to treat 13,000 acres of land through prescribed burning, selective logging, and brush clearing.

Oregon Department of Forestry/AP/File
A firefighting tanker drops retardant over a blaze near Sisters, Oregon, on July 11, 2021.

Local officials have cultivated broad support in recent years to strengthen homebuilding and landscaping standards to improve wildfire safety. Fire Adapted Ashland, an education and outreach program, works with homeowners to safeguard properties and distributes small grants to individuals and neighborhood groups to replace flammable vegetation and trim trees.

The culture of solidarity in the former timber town, now best known for hosting the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, has attracted fire safety officials from other Western states and as far away as England and Spain. They learn that an informal policy to persuade rather than dictate guides the city’s strategy.

“We try to help residents see that their own safety is linked to their neighbor’s safety,” says Brian Hendrix, the communities coordinator of Fire Adapted Ashland. “When everybody does a little, a whole lot gets done.”

Ashland nestles in the southern reaches of the Rogue Valley between the Siskiyou and Cascade mountain ranges. Mount Ashland rises above the town to the west; a dormant volcano, Mount McLoughlin, looms to the east. The setting is a sylvan wonderland for hikers, bikers, and skiers, yet for all its grandeur, the area provoked a sense of unease in Kit Colbenson when he arrived in 2003.

“The hair would stand up on the back of my neck,” he says. “The forest was choked with overgrowth, and I couldn’t see how we could fight a fire in there.”

Andy Nelson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
“We try to help residents see that their own safety is linked to their neighbor’s safety. When everybody does a little, a whole lot gets done.” – Brian Hendrix, who works for a city outreach program that helps homeowners protect their properties from wildfires

His job involved sliding down ropes from helicopters as a member of a Forest Service rappel team. Dense stands of trees – pine, fir, cypress, juniper, madrone – provided an endless supply of wildfire kindling. Moving through the thick understory sometimes required him and his crewmates to resort to “bull-elking,” tightening their hard hats before charging headlong into tangles of branches and bushes.

The conditions in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest illuminate an unforeseen legacy of the West’s timber wars in the 1980s and early ’90s. The bitter struggle over clear-cutting and spotted owl habitat in Oregon, Washington, and California resulted in tight logging restrictions on federal lands as popular sentiment shifted toward saving old-growth forest. 

In the ensuing decades, the ban on most timber operations – along with the enduring practice of extinguishing wildfires as quickly as possible – has deepened the crisis of ailing forests. The added impact of climate change and drought has burdened Western states with an estimated 6.3 billion standing dead trees. The competition for water and sunlight in clogged forests stunts the growth of young trees and diminishes the capacity of older, more fire-resistant trees to withstand flames and disease.

“The bias for a lot of the public is that any tree is a good tree,” Mr. Colbenson says. “But what you end up with is a forest that has more fuel and is more susceptible to big fires.”

The timber wars were still simmering when concerns started percolating in Ashland about an inferno roaring out of the foothills and into town. Forest Service and city officials raised the idea of restoring the 15,000-acre watershed through brush removal, controlled burning, and limited tree thinning to reduce fire danger and preserve the town’s sole water source at the time.

Andy Nelson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
A charred log along a popular hiking trail in Ashland, Oregon, indicates the use of a controlled burn, which is one tool authorities enlist to reduce the threat of fires and enhance forest health.

The initial discussions elicited angry opposition from critics who suspected a Forest Service plot to revert to clear-cutting. Masked protesters stormed the agency’s local office in 1996 and warned the district ranger against cutting so much as a single tree. Sometime later, vandals dumped a large pile of dirt outside the Chamber of Commerce, an earthy message aimed at Sandra Slattery.

Then as now, Ms. Slattery, the chamber’s executive director since 1985, regarded a healthy forest as critical to the tourist town’s future. She ignored hate mail and threatening phone calls as she organized community forums and stressed the merits of ecological restoration to business leaders. Her pragmatic message that Ashland’s natural beauty nourishes its economic, cultural, and recreational vitality carries resonance a generation later.

“The reason people visit here and decide to live here and go to school here has to do with our surroundings. If we don’t take care of the land, they won’t come,” she says. “Hope is not a strategy.”

Years of meetings followed as federal and city officials sought input from environmental groups and timber interests to forge solutions. A mutual willingness to keep talking dissolved the distrust that prevailed at the outset, and by 2001, the Forest Service and Ashland had agreed to rejuvenate 1,500 acres in the watershed. A similar plan received approval three years later, and those efforts blossomed into the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project in 2010.

The city and the Forest Service formed the initiative with The Nature Conservancy and the Lomakatsi Restoration Project, a nonprofit based in Ashland. The alliance has treated 13,000 acres on public and private lands with the aid of $28 million in federal, city, and private funding, plus another $6 million generated by tree harvesting. A water tax approved by the city in 2015 contributes almost $400,000 a year.

Andy Nelson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Ashland, Oregon, lies in a forested valley, which is one reason the community has worked hard to reduce the wildfire threat.

The collaboration has won praise as a national model and subdued the town’s memories of the timber wars by striking a rare balance between ecology and economics. Environmentalists have come to accept that selective logging and brush thinning can increase the watershed’s resilience to fire while sustaining ample habitat for wildlife, and the funding has benefited timber companies that work under Lomakatsi’s supervision.

“I won’t ever say we’ve got it all figured out,” says Mr. Chambers, who envisions expanding the project area and treating portions of the land on a 10-year rotating basis. “But there’s been a commitment to finding common ground.”

The partnership offered a blueprint of sorts for a new statewide initiative created as part of a $220 million wildfire plan that Oregon lawmakers passed in June. The bipartisan measure established a grant funding program to assist communities with restoration of natural lands to bolster wildfire safety.

The destruction wrought by last year’s Almeda Fire magnified the urgency to reach consensus on prevention as the spiraling costs and limited effectiveness of wildland firefighting push Western cities and states to rethink tactics. “We’ve been having such a hard time getting people to agree because we’re carrying so much historical baggage from the timber wars,” says state Sen. Jeff Golden, the bill’s chief sponsor. A Democrat who lives in Ashland, he adds, “I think more people are finally seeing the need for a middle course on forest management.”

The hills above the city bear evidence of progress through compromise. On a recent morning before wildfire smoke shrouded the valley, Mr. Colbenson walked through a grove of ponderosa pine, the forest floor dappled with sunlight and patches of green grass and shrubs.

Andy Nelson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Kit Colbenson of the U.S. Forest Service walks through a stand of ponderosa pine that shows the effects of tree thinning, brush clearing, and prescribed burns to create a healthy forest.

During the past two years, crews with the stewardship project restored the tract, cutting smaller and medium-sized trees to open space for mature trees to thrive. The teams thinned excess understory and applied prescribed fire to burn away dead needles and leaves and excess grasses.

The mosaic of treated and untreated land at once preserves biodiversity and reduces the amount of natural debris that feeds wildfires. The lower fuel load and the gaps between trees can prevent flames from climbing into the canopy, improving the odds of ground crews containing a blaze.

“In here, you feel like you have a chance against a fire,” says Mr. Colbenson, who a decade ago switched from dropping out of Forest Service helicopters to riding on one of its firetrucks. In winter and spring, he and his crew clear underbrush and conduct controlled burns in the foothills, and he has noticed a friendlier tone of late among the hikers and mountain bikers they encounter. He wonders if the watershed initiative, beyond healing the land, has begun to mend the Forest Service’s image.

“There used to be a lot of stares and people telling us to stop what we’re doing,” he says. “Now you get people telling you how much they appreciate the work.”

Andy Nelson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
“The danger isn’t sometime in the future – it’s now. Our best chance is if we realize we all face the danger together.” – Becky Kilburn, a local resident who has taken steps to protect her house from fires

A line of 25 tree stumps parallels a wooden fence separating Becky Kilburn’s yard and her neighbor’s property. When she bought the ranch-style house in 2016, the Douglas firs planted by the previous owner stood 8 feet tall, forming a green wall that topped the fence.

Two years ago, recognizing that the firs posed a fire hazard to both homes, Ms. Kilburn and her neighbor split the $1,800 cost to hire a tree cutter. She later received a voluntary risk review from the fire department’s outreach program, Fire Adapted Ashland, to learn tips to make her house less vulnerable. The discussion motivated her to dispose of the bark mulch ringing the exterior foundation, install gutter guards, and clear dead grass from beneath the deck.

A retired information systems developer, Ms. Kilburn moved to Ashland from the East Coast with vague awareness of the city’s rising fire threat. The past five years have sharpened her sense of communal obligation. “The danger isn’t sometime in the future – it’s now,” she says. “Our best chance is if we realize we all face the danger together.”

Fire Adapted Ashland mapped the city’s wildfire risk in 2018 by performing a curbside review of each of its 8,000 homes. The snapshot assessments served as a prelude to local officials adopting an ordinance that placed the entire community within the wildland-urban interface, defined as areas where development meets natural lands.

The designation aided the city in enacting a ban on new plantings of firs, junipers, manzanitas, and other highly flammable trees and shrubs within 30 feet of residential structures. A related rule for new-home construction that went into effect Oct. 1 mandates use of noncombustible materials for roofs, walls, and other features.

Ashland lacks similar policies requiring the retrofitting of existing houses, except in extreme cases. The absence of such authority makes the town like any other in the West. What distinguishes its wildfire safety campaign is the ability of officials to coax residents to take precautions.

Mr. Hendrix, with Fire Adapted Ashland, embodies that polite persistence. Steering a fire department SUV, he ascends into the foothills along the city’s vertiginous roads, visiting homeowners who request a free risk assessment of their properties. He views his job not as an enforcer but as a translator explaining the concepts of “defensible space” and “home-hardening” in practical terms.

In almost every conversation, he emphasizes that even small home improvements and regular yard upkeep can buy precious minutes for residents to evacuate or firefighters to save their homes. “People see the effects of climate change and it can be pretty overwhelming,” Mr. Hendrix says. “This program helps them feel like they’re doing something.”

The popularity of the risk reviews has created a backlog, and to ease his burden, a team of trained volunteers will start handling assessments this fall. Their participation provides another example of the city’s we’re-all-in-this-together mindset that has earned Firewise status for three dozen Ashland neighborhoods. The national program bestows the appellation on places where residents follow a strategy for fire preparedness with the guidance of local officials.

Andy Nelson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
“You can do all the right things to protect your home and still come back to nothing but your fireplace. But if you don’t do anything, then that’s for sure what you’ll come back to.” – Doug Kay, a homeowner in Ashland who volunteers to help residents mitigate fire dangers

In Mountain Ranch, the enclave where Ms. Kilburn lives, Doug Kay acts as a Firewise coordinator and one-person fire prevention crew, assisting neighbors with home and yard projects. He has installed fire-resistant gutter guards and deck screening, hauled away invasive blackberry bushes, and set up water drips in common areas to nurse trees through the drought.

A retired general contractor, Mr. Kay, a member of the city’s Wildfire Safety Commission, a citizens advisory council, traces his vigilance to the weeks after he and his wife moved to Ashland from Nevada in 2010. An arson fire ripped through a nearby neighborhood and destroyed 11 homes.

“You can do all the right things to protect your home and still come back to nothing but your fireplace,” he says. “But if you don’t do anything, then that’s for sure what you’ll come back to.”

The Almeda Fire that ignited on Sept. 8 last year reinforced the proximity of the threat. Helene Shoen recalls her low-level dread after waking to a hot, relentless wind that morning in Ashland. The conditions reminded her of the flame-stoking Santa Ana winds of her Southern California youth. A medical massage practitioner, she along with her then-husband owned a clinic in the adjacent town of Talent. Within hours, their building lay in ruins, one of more than 2,800 homes and businesses that the fire destroyed.

Andy Nelson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
The sun sets over the Ashland Springs Hotel and Varsity Theatre in downtown Ashland, Oregon. The southern Oregon community has enlisted many different groups to help safeguard homes and businesses and surrounding forests from the threat of catastrophic wildfires.

The strain of rebuilding the practice has depleted Ms. Shoen’s emotional reserves at times without plunging her into fatalism. She keeps her home’s rooftop and gutters clear of pine needles and pulls weeds sprouting around the deck. “Some people say there’s no chance of stopping something like the Almeda Fire. But you can at least try to stop fires from starting in your neighborhood,” she says.

An acceptance of living with wildfire that inspires action rather than resignation defines Ashland’s approach to prevention. As the West’s infernos outflank firefighters and overrun fuel breaks, the city has cast the destruction in Talent and Phoenix as reason for residents to join the cause.

“There’s a difference when people feel the threat and not only read or hear about it,” says Tonya Graham, a member of Ashland’s City Council. “Suddenly, after years of us trying to get their attention, they’re interested in what they can do.”

Ashland officials intend to continue relying on persuasive prevention. The city received a $3 million federal grant earlier this year to cover the costs of preparing defensible space around 1,100 homes and to replace shake roofs on 23 houses. A partnership between the city and an area real estate association seeks to educate potential homebuyers about fire risks. The Chamber of Commerce, under Ms. Slattery, promotes a Smokewise program that supplies air purifiers to seniors and low-income families and offers other safeguards for businesses. 

The support for Smokewise contrasts with the hostility she faced in the late 1990s, when vandals dumped dirt outside the chamber’s offices. “We didn’t back down then from what we thought was right,” she says, “and that’s still the case today.”

For Mr. Chambers, the native son devoted to protecting his hometown, the past two decades represent only the early stages of the effort to reduce wildfire danger and renew the watershed. He estimates Ashland has reached the quarter-way point – a sobering statement given that most Western cities lag decades behind on prevention.

He knows hope is not a strategy. If the wind had reversed direction a year ago, the Almeda Fire would have ravaged Ashland. He braces for the day when a blaze invades the hills above the city. “We’re not fully ready for it,” he says. “But we’re a lot better off than we were five or 10 years ago.”

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