Dwellers in Oregon’s Siskiyou Watershed Brace for Forest Blazes
The Siskiyou Mountains set off this city like a rich green backdrop for one of the plays that draw thousands each year to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
And in an ironic twist worthy of one of the Bard’s tragedies, man’s star-crossed efforts to protect the timbered hills from fire have made them all the more vulnerable, putting at risk not only expensive hillside homes with commanding vistas of the valley but the city’s primary source of drinking water.
Ashland’s quandary with the Siskiyou is a high-stakes example of how forests across the nation have been altered by man’s well-meaning hand.
For centuries, fires erupted every few years as part of the forests’ natural process of renewal. The blazes tended to be small, creeping across the forest floor, clearing away brush, seedlings and dead and downed trees.
But since this area became widely settled 100 years ago, the fires that have flared in the Siskiyou have been snuffed out, allowing dense thickets of volatile manzanita and other brush to thrive and create a tinderbox.
Now if fire enters, it will burn hot and fast, leaping from the forest floor into the crowns of the trees, where dry east winds that blow in late summer can send flames racing across the ridge tops.
The big fear in Ashland, a southern Oregon city of 20,000, is a firestorm similar to the one that struck California’s Oakland Hills in 1991, killing 25 people and destroying 3,000 homes.
Custom hillside homes on Ashland’s outskirts, where the forest meets the city, can be worth $1 million each. An intense blaze in the 14,000-acre watershed would also leave the city without water by allowing the bare hillsides to erode and fill Reeder Reservoir with sediment. That would force Ashland to build an $8-million pipeline to draw water from nearby Medford.
“For 100 years now this community has kept wildfire from the Ashland watershed,” said Mayor Cathy Shaw. “And we now must do 100 years of catch-up. We are at this point where the created problem must be remedied before wildfire goes through there.”
Ashland city officials and the Rogue River National Forest are both working to restore the forest to a more natural state where it can withstand fire without being destroyed.
The question is whether city budget constraints and environmentalists’ efforts to limit logging inside the old growth forest watershed will allow them to get the work done before the inevitable happens.
“Fire is a reality,” said Fire Chief Keith Woodley. “We’ll never prevent all of them. Our mission is to create a situation where all fires are low intensity and we can get to it in time to control it. We’re not there yet.”
The city began developing its fire-prevention strategies in 1991, a few months before the Oakland Hills firestorm. A forest management plan was developed for the 1,000 acres of city property within the watershed, taking into account the effect on fish and wildlife as well as fire danger.
Now a crew is clearing brush and thinning stands of timber. With a budget of $100,000 a year out of water revenues, the work is scheduled to be finished in 10 years. Then it will be time to start over.
An ordinance requires developers to clear brush and thin timber before building on lots in the watershed.
Woodley felt it wasn’t possible, politically, to require people to clean up vacant land, which can cost $700 an acre, but cleaning up the developed land is a good start.
“People would come in and say, ‘How can you let them build on these slopes after Oakland?’ ” Woodley said. “If they build on that hillside, I get the entire property cleaned up by ordinance.”
During fire season, mountain bike patrols keep watch for fires. Woodley has upgraded the fire department’s trucks with bigger engines and four-wheel drive so they can power up the steep mountain roads.
His strategy recognizes that fires will start, whether from lightning, arson or accident. He wants to know that those fires will be moving slowly enough for his department to catch them before they run out of control.
To protect the watershed, the Rogue River National Forest came up with a plan for clearing a network of firebreaks to give crews a chance to fight back. But the original proposal drew protests from environmentalists.
The local environmental group Headwaters fought for and won concessions that reduced the harvest of large trees, which are at once the most commercially valuable and the most resistant to fire.
Though in agreement over the need to mechanically reduce the fire danger, Headwaters was still concerned that logging would cause erosion that would send damaging sediments into steelhead spawning beds on Ashland Creek. They appealed the logging plan.
The appeal frustrated Mayor Shaw, because it means work scheduled to begin this summer will be delayed at least a year.
Looking down the hill from the terrace behind his spectacular home, retired teacher Bill Forester knows firsthand the dangers he faces by choosing to live where the forest meets the city. His home in the Oakland Hills burned in the firestorm in 1991, and the insurance settlement financed this home.
This is the second time he has started over from nothing. The youngest of nine children, he moved to California with his family in 1935 after the Dust Bowl claimed his father’s wheat farm in Oklahoma.
Unlike the redwood shakes on his California home, Forester has chosen slate for the roof of this house. The exterior walls are stucco. The rear terrace is cinder-block and concrete instead of wood. And the trees, grass and brush are kept cut back, particularly on the hillside directly below the house, which is the most likely route for fire to make a run at him.
“I suppose in the classic firestorm, this home would burn,” Forester said. “But I’ve got good open space. Because of that clearance, I feel pretty comfortable.”
Fire Chief Woodley does not share Forester’s confidence.
“We are going to have a fire up here,” Woodley said. “The question is when, where and how many homes are lost. The ones that scare me are the ones who are confident.”