Ashland task force focuses on emergency evacuation plan

By Jane Vaughan (Jefferson Public Radio)
Aug. 8, 2023 5:47 p.m.

The goal is to design the most efficient and safest mass evacuation plan in case of a disaster.

With lessons from the Almeda Fire of 2020 still fresh in people’s minds, Ashland officials met Monday to develop a new evacuation plan in the case of a similar disaster.

That plan is being developed by a city task force which includes public works, police, fire and rescue and the Oregon Department of Transportation.


In 2021, the city developed an Evacuation Time Estimate Study, but Kelly Burns, Ashland’s emergency management coordinator, said the study doesn’t clearly define the roles of different city agencies during a mass evacuation.

“How is the evacuation actually going to happen? Like, who’s doing what job? Who’s covering what area?” Burns said. “In events like this, all the firefighters and all of the police department, they’re out in the field, and they’re saving lives. So who’s left to direct traffic to help the citizens that ... need that evacuation piece?”

A map of Ashland's evacuation plan, which divides the city into 10 zones.

A map of Ashland's evacuation plan, which divides the city into 10 zones.

Courtesy of the city of Ashland

As a result, the task force is working on developing best practices for the city in case of a mass evacuation.

Initial plans include setting up evacuation zone signs throughout town so residents know which zone they’re in.


The group is also exploring adding additional emergency exit ramps for evacuations.

Ashland already has one ramp off of North Mountain Avenue. But Burns said they’re exploring adding more, potentially where East Main Street crosses over I-5.

“Part of our discussion was to talk about, are there other places on our overpasses, like between Exit 14 and Exit 19, to put additional on-ramps or off-ramps, just little emergency pathways for citizens and for evacuees,” he said.

Other discussion topics focused on individual personnel. The current emergency exit ramp off of North Mountain Avenue, for example, is blocked by a locked gate. Certain emergency personnel have the code.

But “it has to have a human who can control traffic stay there,” Burns said. “Who’s gonna tend that gate?”

The group also discussed how to conduct an evacuation when road construction closes certain lanes throughout town. The group plans to work with construction contractors to ensure some drivable lanes can be opened if needed.

During the 2020 Almeda Fire, which destroyed over 2,300 homes, mostly in Talent and Phoenix, many in Jackson County didn’t receive emergency notifications.

A 2021 After-Action Report about the response to the Almeda and South Obenchain fires highlighted some key weaknesses in the way city and county leaders responded, including miscommunication, understaffing, insufficient training and lack of coordination.

The Evacuation Time Estimate Study from 2021 noted that Ashland “has limited ingress/egress routes,” due to its topography, and the entire city takes four hours, on average, to evacuate, if residents can evacuate in either direction. It says that main streets will experience congestion and delays, even in best-case scenarios.

Burns hopes the task force will meet again in a month.