Over the past few years we’ve seen more large-scale fires in and around our populated areas that have damaged or destroyed homes and other buildings and even taken a life.
u July 17, 2018 — The Penninger fire, the fourth fire along the Greenway in twice as many days, burned 97 acres, destroyed and damaged outbuildings, singed homes, killed one person and caused the evacuations of homes and businesses. It started near a known homeless camp.
u July 5, 2018 — The White City Atlantic fire burned 115 acres, a house, boats and RVs and closed Hwy 140. It was caused by a teen playing with fireworks in a dry grass field.
u Sept. 15, 2014 — The Boles fire in Weed, California, burned 516 acres, 157 homes and eight commercial properties and more were damaged. It started as a grass fire.
u Aug. 24, 2010 — The Oak Knoll Fire, which was smaller at just over 11 acres, but also started in a dry grass field, burned 11 homes and damaged two others. It was started by a homeless man lighting matches and cigarettes in a dry grass field.
I’ve been quite disturbed over these fires since the Atlantic and Penninger fires occurred and really think that these fires are sounding a call to action before something even more devastating occurs to our community. These fires create economic loss, distress our residents whether they lose possessions, loved ones or are evacuated. These fires put a stress on our firefighting, police and other public resources and increase the danger that they experience.
All of these fires were in and around the residential and/or business centers. All of these fires had dry grass fields in common.
Call to Action No. 1: Property owners and occupants, both residential and commercial, need to do what they can to limit the potential for fire spread. While many of our municipalities have weed abatement ordinances that require the mowing of grass before fire season sets in, some property owners ignore it until it’s too late. (Just don’t mow today! You create a greater risk by mowing now than by leaving due to our conditions.)
Call to Action No. 2: Public officials need to re-evaluate the weed abatement ordinances in place. When I see the wind-driven fire behavior that occurred on these fires, I don’t know if a buffer around a field with 4-foot-high dry weeds is enough or if leaving grass at 10 inches high is good enough.
The challenging thing about weed abatement is that property owners who do abate their weeds on the edges of our municipalities are still threatened by properties in the county who choose not to cut their dry grass because there are no weed abatement ordinances on properties in the county. While efforts were made with Jackson County over the last few years to require a weed abatement buffer zone around municipalities, the conversation seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Call to Action No. 3: What do we do about our homeless population and the impacts they have created as it relates to fire? The Penninger fire started near a homeless camp. The Oak Knoll fire was started by a homeless man. Another devastating fire on the Ashland Plaza in 2012 was started by a homeless man and destroyed many businesses and closed others for several months just before the tourist season started.
I know there are efforts by many to provide help to the homeless, and how do we protect those who have worked so hard for what they have accomplished?
Call to Action No. 4: Fireworks. Why do we still sell fireworks June 23-July 6 when we are certainly in fire season and frequently in high fire danger, and then the fireworks are used throughout the summer? I know from past experience that some will consider this thought un-American, but how American is it to give people tools to burn their neighbor’s house down?
Really, the bottom line is this. We all live here together. We need to help protect each other. None of us should be doing things that put our neighbors at risk. If you want to see change, contact your commissioners, councilors or state representatives and tell them what you want to see changed.
Margueritte Hickman is a retired division chief and fire marshal for Ashland Fire Rescue.