ashland.news
April 14, 2024

Did we learn anything from the Almeda Fire? Plenty.

The burn scar of the 2020 Almeda Fire. Courtesy Rich Nauman, ArcGIS Living Atlas Environment Team
September 11, 2023

List of needed improvements includes creating defensible space, requiring fire-resistant buildings, shoring up water reserves and delivery systems, and improving evacuation preparedness, alerts and coordination

By Shaun Hall, Rogue Valley Times

During the Almeda Fire, roads were gridlocked, evacuation alerts were lacking and water pressure plummeted as buildings and water pipes were destroyed.

Since then, 30,000 more people have signed up to receive emergency alerts from Jackson County, a new emergency on-ramp to Interstate 5 was constructed last year between the exits in Ashland, and the water supply in the south valley is being improved.

There’s still no air-raid-style sirens in place, but there are more firefighters and firefighting equipment on hand, and there’s heightened awareness of fire danger and the need to prepare. Brush along the Bear Creek Greenway is getting cleared, too.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck crisis,” state Sen. Jeff Golden of Ashland said Friday, on the third anniversary of the Sept. 8, 2020, fire. “Everybody who owns property in that part of the state needs to be a part of this.”

Golden and several local government officials contacted for this story were asked about lessons learned from the fire and what’s been done since then to prepare for the next one. Besides Golden, they included Charles Hanley, chief of Jackson County Fire District No. 5; Holly Powers, Jackson County emergency manager; and Kelly Burns, emergency manager for Ashland.

Smoke from the Almeda Fire fills the sky over the Rogue Valley on Sept. 8, 2020. Photo courtesy Lee Winslow / Oregon Department of Forestry
‘I started hearing sirens’

Golden was home in Ashland when the fire broke out about a half-mile away.

“I started hearing sirens,” he said. “I went outside and saw some pretty localized smoke nearby. I rode down to the lot where it started and then I got on the Greenway and started biking toward Talent, and I got only 200 to 300 yards before the heat and flames burning on both sides of the path turned me around.”

By the end of the day, fire had swept 13 miles to the north, to the edge of Medford, before winds died down, halting the destruction. The next day, Golden rode with a deputy in a vehicle through the still-smoldering ruins of two cities.

The deputy told him that many people during the fire said they weren’t evacuating. Three people died.

“I think the miracle of the decade was that the death toll was as low as it was,” Golden said.

The Almeda Fire showed in a big way that big urban fires happen and that there was a need for action.

“We tried to use those lessons in the big wildfire bill we passed in 2021,” Golden said, referring to Senate Bill 762. “A good chunk of that was informed by the Almeda Fire and Paradise (California) Fire. We had no idea that a non-forest fire could be so intense and harm a community so badly.”

The wildfire bill focused on the need for property owners to create defensible space around their homes. Rules to be enforced by the state fire marshal in high-risk areas near communities are still in the works, but the ideas are applicable everywhere: People should clear trees and brush away from structures. Fire knows no boundaries.

The bill also set fire-resistant building standards for new construction in certain high-risk areas and provided grants that paid for staffing and equipment for fire departments around the state, including more than $3.1 million for fire agencies in Jackson County.

Golden would have preferred that more money be set aside for grants to aid individual property owners who can’t afford to clear brush, limb up trees and otherwise create space around their homes that help prevent the spread of wildfire.

“We’re doing better than we might be doing, but not as well as we need to be doing,” Golden said.

Standing dead snags along the Bear Creek Greenway are a constant reminder of the Almeda Fire, which was fueled in part by miles of blackberry bushes and other fuel along the path. More than $1 million is being spent for removal of invasive plants, especially blackberries. Rogue Valley Times photo by Jamie Lusch
There will be more fires

Burns, who was hired as Ashland’s first emergency manager earlier this year, was the first firefighter on the scene of the Almeda Fire, when he was battalion chief for Ashland Fire & Rescue. He refers to the fire and its aftermath as “our collective trauma.”

There’s going to be more fires, he warned.

“We will be severely challenged.”

In 2021, Ashland conducted a citizen survey that reflected concern about information flow during the fire.

“Everyone in town should have received the notifications on Sept. 8” was a typical response. “People in Ashland have absolutely no idea where to go during an emergency” was another. “Updates, updates, updates,” another wrote, urging continuous notices during an emergency.

The city’s website carries extensive information about fire danger and preparation, including preparation to evacuate.

“I’m a big believer in an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Burns said. “We’re trying to get people more ready.”

Fire agencies have long preached fire safety, but there’s a new emphasis on it these days, according to Burns.

“There’s way more focus now on individual preparedness,” he said.

That includes signing up to receive evacuation alerts and preparing a “go-kit” ahead of time.

People should be prepared to act on their own, he said.

“There may not be any firefighters or police to respond because they will be out doing other things,” he said.

In the next fire, Burns probably will be helping to coordinate evacuations, including a situation-dependent option to use the new emergency ramp onto southbound I-5 in central north Ashland at Mountain Avenue. The ramp was built by the state in cooperation with the city at a cost of $100,000 in response to traffic-clogged streets during the fire. Kelly and others, including city and state police, have authority to open a gate there to allow the ramp’s use. A task force is looking into evacuation-related issues, including signage and staffing.

A dotted green line shows where a new emergency onramp connects North Mountain Avenue and southbound Interstate 5. ODOT image
‘People need to be prepared’

Hanley, fire chief for the district that takes in Phoenix and Talent, addressed the issues of water pressure, staffing and preparation.

“My message is, people need to be prepared,” he said. “Just have a little bucket (containing essentials). Grab it and go. Take care of yourself first.”

“If we just prepare for a problem, it takes a minute. If you can just prepare to take care of yourself, you’ll be better off.”

Haney’s department has benefited from $5 million in state and federal funding for a two-year academy that trained 21 fire personnel who work as district employees during their training. Grants also have helped rebuild two fire stations.

Asked about water pressure during a big fire, Hanley said there was a need for additional water storage and supply.

“There’s just not enough water to fight a fire of that magnitude,” he said. “The systems need to be redundant.”

The Almeda Fire destroyed water pipes in buildings, allowing water to flow freely.

“All of those water lines are wide open because those valves are destroyed,” Hanley said. “It’s just pouring out.”

A similar thing happened during an Aug. 8 conflagration in Lahaina, Hawaii, that killed at least 115 people. Pipes were destroyed and water flowed out, lessening pressure to fight flames.

One possible answer would be to tap into irrigation systems using pumps and piping independent of a city’s water system, according to Golden, who noted that many irrigation districts are in the process of upgrading their systems, including the piping of now-open ditches.

Burns said it’s just not safe to put someone in harm’s way in order to shut off a water valve at a burning building. Nor does it make sense to shut off water to a neighborhood, if that water is needed for firefighting.

“Losing your water pressure with a mega-fire is the new norm,” he said. “That’s a tactical puzzle that needs to be solved.”

Hanley said water supply could come from multiple sources, including tanks, irrigation systems and possibly even from treated wastewater. In addition, about 100 people have come forward to offer up their own pools, ponds and water supply in an emergency, though it takes time for a water truck to leave a fire scene, take on water and drive back. Hanley suggested that people contact federal representatives to make water supply a priority.

In related matters, the city of Phoenix is expecting to construct a $5 million, 2.5-million-gallon water tank off of North Phoenix Road in 2025, according to Eric Swanson, city manager. In addition, $3.2 million in improvements to the Talent-Ashland-Phoenix water line and pumps are expected to be made in 2025, providing improved pressure and the ability to move water according to demand. The projects are funded under the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

One new source of water storage has come online since the fire: The city of Talent constructed a reservoir off of Rapp Road, giving it 5 million gallons of available storage, compared with 3 million gallons at the time of the fire, according to Robert Stayton, Talent public works director.

In another fire-related item, Hanley was asked about the possibility of a siren to alert the community. They cost about $850,000.

“They’re expensive, but they work,” he said. “I know there’s been some discussion about it. I’m a proponent of advance warning systems, but where are we going to get funding?”

Strengths and weaknesses

After the fire, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners commissioned an after-action report that evaluated coordination and communication between the county’s emergency operations center, local jurisdictions and responding agencies. It found strengths and weaknesses.

“The priority given to me by the board of commissioners was to focus on the alert system,” said Powers, the county’s emergency manager. “The alerts are sent at the request of the first responders, so we work in close partnership with them on a regular basis, to make sure we’re communicating.”

The county is now integrated with the state’s alert program, can send alerts in Spanish and conducts regular alert system tests. Nearly 77,000 people are signed up for alerts, 30,000 more than at the time of the fire, according to Powers.

Strengths noted in the report included a rapid response from agencies and quick stand-up of an evacuation center at The Expo in Central Point. The report also found strong relationships in place across agencies and departments.

The report found weaknesses that included a lack of centralized flow of information. It suggested more training and region-wide exercises, and also suggested fully staffing the county’s two-person emergency management department, which had a vacancy at the time.

“The biggest thing is, we’re ensuring the things listed in the after-action report are being addressed,” Powers said.

She expects to update commissioners later this year on progress toward improvements suggested in the report.

In a related matter, Powers is in the process of updating a natural hazard mitigation plan that allows the county and cities to apply for federal emergency preparedness grants for such things as community outreach and protection of critical facilities. A draft of the plan will be posted to the county’s website next week, with a public comment period lasting at least two weeks, according to Powers.

In addition, she and the county are updating the county’s emergency operations plan and its wildfire protection plan.

“The biggest thing is individual preparedness,” Powers said. “Our firefighters and law enforcement officers, they do an amazing job, but there’s not one of those for every one of us.”

“Be informed,” Powers said. “Make a plan. Build a kit, your go-kit.”

More information about fire prevention, preparation and alerts can be found online at Rogue Valley Emergency Management, rvem.org.

In another county-related matter, Steve Lambert, Jackson County roads and parks director, said multiple projects have come together to address fire danger along the Bear Creek Greenway. Trees and brush along the creek provided fuel for the wind-driven Almeda Fire.

The projects include $450,000 in county funding in 2021 for brushing and removal of invasive plants, especially blackberries. In addition, a $700,000 state-funded project in cooperation with Phoenix and Talent to chip dead wood is expected to get underway possibly this fall. Also, $900,000 in federal funds has been obtained for a multi-year project to address invasive species removal and habitat restoration along the greenway and within the footprint of the Almeda Fire and another fire in the Central Point area.

Reach Rogue Valley Times outdoors and environmental reporter Shaun Hall at 458-225-7179 or shall@rv-times.com. This story first appeared in the Rogue Valley Times.

Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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