Fire assessment volunteer Reggie Windham examines the outside of Peggy Strain’s home, south of downtown Ashland. She’s here to look for spots where flying embers could get inside and set the house ablaze, and to help Strain defend herself against wildfires.
“Let’s see, you’ve got metal gutters,” Windham says, looking up at Strain’s roof.
“I’ve got metal gutters and I have metal gutter guards on top,” says Strain.
“Yay! Wonderful,” Windham exclaims.
Strain’s home is actually better off than many others Windham assesses. Strain sought out a home assessment because she’s already made some changes and wanted to see what more could be done.
Often, overgrown vegetation can be a major issue, creating spots where fire can get closer and burn hotter.
“As you can see, Peggy, ivy covers a lot of debris,” Windham spreads apart a wall of ivy draping over a retaining wall in Strain’s backyard. “And rats love it.”
Windham says she’s done around 40 assessments since the program began last fall.
She says most homeowners who get these evaluations are receptive to the advice, but it can be incredibly difficult to change the minds of those resistant few.
Just across the street from Strain’s home is a towering wall of fire-prone Italian cypress trees.
“Yeah and those cypress just worry me,” Strain says. “The guy that owns the house is really a nice guy but when this guy [his neighbor], he went over and asked him, ‘well, what if I chipped in to like, bring down your trees?’ and he said no way. So we call it the Great Wall of China.”
Strain turns to look at her other neighbor’s yard packed to the brim with trees and bushes. She says that neighbor doesn’t want to trim anything, despite the apparent danger of the trees being so close to the house.
“It’s not to criticize anybody but people haven’t really jumped onto,” she says. “You know, people don’t want to have to take out all the shrubs in front of their house and put in five feet of gravel.”
Removing anything flammable up to five feet from the house is a major part of creating a defensible space. If a homeowner has plants, wood piles or even bark mulch up against their home, that creates opportunities for more embers to enter the home.
Windham says fire that close to the house could easily break windows. And without proper protection on a roof overhang, rising embers could enter the attic and spark a fire inside.
“You have soffit vents, yay!” Windham points to vents on the underside of Strain’s roof overhang, which prevent wind-blown embers from getting inside.
In 2018, Ashland conducted a sidewalk assessment of every home in the city, identifying the most fire-prone neighborhoods.
Brian Hendrix, the Fire Adapted Communities coordinator for the Ashland Fire Department says doing that survey really showed how vulnerable Ashland is to fire.
“You realize that overall, across the whole city, there are a lot of homes that are just not ready for wildfire,” says Hendrix. “There’s just too much vegetation around those homes, especially the ones that are in close proximity to each other.”
The homes on Ashland’s forested slopes are at the highest risk for wildfires, but Hendrix says the survey showed many homes throughout the city that were also at high risk during a wildfire, ones not traditionally in the wildfire risk zone.
Ashland formally began its firewise efforts in 2010 with the Firewise USA program, sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association. The voluntary program encourages individual neighborhoods to form their own “firewise” community, and volunteers help their neighbors protect their homes and surrounding areas from wildfire.
Encouraging officials during that time were two wildfires that came through parts of the city, the 2009 Siskiyou and 2010 Oak Knoll fires. Currently, there are 33 active firewise communities in the city, making up around 10% of Ashland’s surface area, according to Hendrix.
Since starting the Firewise USA program in Ashland, the city has gravitated towards what Hendrix calls a Fire Adapted Communities model. Through this model, Hendrix says the focus is on the homes and areas at the most risk during a wildfire, not just the active firewise communities.
Since Ashland began its firewise efforts, only the Almeda fire in 2020 came close to breaching the city and causing major damage.
“Talent just got devastated,” says Doug Kay, a member of the Wildfire Safety Commission and a firewise volunteer since 2010. “Phoenix got devastated. A shift in the wind and we wouldn’t be sitting talking in my house. I probably would’ve burnt up.”
Ashland Forestry Division Chief Chris Chambers says some of the firewise work done on the edge of Ashland by both the city and homeowners likely prevented major destruction during Almeda.
“If the grass hadn’t been mowed, if people hadn’t been doing the upkeep on their lots, the fire would’ve done more damage inside of Ashland,” Chambers says. Chambers says lately the city has fallen behind on fuel reduction efforts in nearby forests.
“It’s always a challenge,” he says. “We’re in conflict with recreation, we’re in conflict with community events and outdoor Shakespeare performances. A lot of things get in the way of getting more acres done out there.”
Chambers manages the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project, a project started in 2010 to help reduce the risk of wildfire in nearby forests. Residents might be familiar with the regular warnings about smoke from nearby prescribed burns in the off-season.
But Chambers says restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic over the last few years have meant less fuel reduction than normal.
Kay adds it’s not hard to see the danger that lurks in the nearby forests.
“All you have to do is take a spin around, do a 360, turn around in a circle and look up at the hillsides,” he says. “And with the drought; and we’ve had a big beetle infestation now, the hills have a lot of dead or dying trees up there.”
That’s why it’s up to individual homeowners to harden their homes if they have any hope of preventing a wildfire. Hendrix says the work volunteers like Windham are doing is really making a difference in the city – their passion encourages homeowners to make changes.
“The way that I look at it — even with the Almeda fire — I sensed that we’re really on our own. The fire department’s not gonna save us,” Windham says.
She says she helps homeowners from all backgrounds, including those with mobile homes. Windham says she assessed a mobile home that needed the roof and skirting replaced and was surrounded by long grass — all issues when thinking about fire resiliency.
But she says that the homeowner couldn’t afford to replace her roof or skirting. And currently, there isn’t any grant money to help low-income homeowners with changes like that.
“There are three of us with the volunteers who are marking people who might be disabled or elderly who might need some extra funding to get somebody in to do the work,” she says.
The fire department themselves could only do about 40 home assessments a year. But since starting this volunteer program in October, they’ve completed more than 170 assessments.
“We have found over the years that one-on-one engagement with the resident has proven the most effective at convincing them to do their own work,” Hendrix says.
As the volunteers complete surveys, they’re also helping to reassess homes in Ashland, comparing how things have changed since the city-wide survey in 2018. Hendrix hopes to completely re-assess the city over the next few years, focusing first on the homes receiving assessments.
That 2018 survey helped the city receive a $3 million grant from FEMA to remove vegetation around homes and replace highly flammable wood shake roofs.
Peggy Strain learned during her home assessment she could be reimbursed for the removal of a large tree in her backyard and for ripping out hazardous juniper bushes.
“That’s something if there was FEMA money that would help me to get rid of my juniper, I would be really happy,” she exclaims.
Windham says costs can be a huge turnoff to homeowners looking to be more fire resilient. But not everything needs to happen at once.
“Everything that we’re saying today is just suggestions,” she says. “And little baby steps is all we’re wanting you to do, and inspire other people to do.”
Hendrix says the grant money is really helpful in convincing homeowners to make that next step in protecting their house from wildfire.
The city of Ashland and its many dedicated volunteers are taking things one step at a time, hoping that every homeowner that makes some changes to their home helps protect the city against wildfire just a little bit more.