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  • Chris Cook, Capiche

Conversations with Local Leaders Gives Perspectives on the Future of Our Community

by Chris Cook, Capiche

Chief Charles Hanley, Jackson County Fire District 5

Chief Charles Hanley, Jackson County Fire District 5

Chief Hanley, you came to Fire District 5 with a lot of experience with massive fires, including a few in the Sonoma area and a refinery fire in Rodeo. Just recently, your team battled the Almeda Fire. What did you see as the biggest challenges related to the fire's spread through the built environment and how might we best solve these challenges? There are three components that come into play in fighting and preventing fires:

  1. Weight of attack

  2. Water supply

  3. Mitigation

We need to staff up if we are to increase the weight of attack. There are only two firefighters in our station at any time, and that’s just not enough for a large-scale fire like the Almeda. It’s important to understand that the neighboring districts are in similar situations. Most of Oregon’s firefighters are concentrated in a four-county area, not in southern Oregon. Regarding water supply, we need to be able to flood a fire. In the midst of a drought, water use should be reconsidered as an important part of mitigation. For example, we can effectively utilize treated wastewater for lawns, landscaping and firefighting. Firewise design doesn’t necessarily mean drought-resistant or xeroscape design. It refers to hardscapes, rocks, greenspace and other landscaping techniques. In preventing such widespread devastation going forward, what will be most important in the planning and revitalization of communities? We need to get clear on our priorities. As we repopulate the area, we must consider the needs of residents and businesses. What was adequate when the fire district was formed is no longer adequate. This refers to water supply, firefighting, public safety and other public services. This begins with planning and obtaining funding to properly staff our fire districts. We can only bring what the community can reasonably afford to pay for. A good example of how this can work is in the community of Santa Rosa. There have been wildfires each of the last three years. However, by dramatically increasing their weight of attack (Sonoma County Fire Agencies), the 2019 Kinkade Fire and 2020 LNU Complex resulted in less damage than the 2017 Tubbs Fire. We can’t have social amnesia. With 2,400 structures burned in 10 hours, it’s clear we need to strengthen our weight of attack, water supply and mitigation.

Jamie McLeod-Skinner, City of Talent Interim City Manager

You’ve walked into an important position within a community that suffered a devastating loss last fall—what was it that drew you to this position? I have a lot of love for this community. I graduated from high school just down the road in Ashland and my family lived just across I-5, surrounded by pear orchards when I was in college. The City of Talent is a microcosm of what’s special about southern Oregon – a diverse community where people care about each other. I’m honored to be able to help rebuild from the devastating Almeda wildfire. Being a part of rebuilding a third of the homes and businesses in Talent is legacy work for all of us. Talent Strong. What role does a City Manager play in promoting a firewise community? The first responsibility of a City Manager is always the health and safety of a community. Your role is to build and manage a team that can respond to the current needs of your community and plan to meet future needs. Promoting a firewise community involves working with our residents and regional partners to understand the risks and opportunities, developing sound planning and communicating effectively with our residents and businesses. There is great opportunity after tragedy—what role can the design and construction industry play in the rebirth of the community? The design and construction industry plays a key role in rebuilding our city and community. I specifically reference “city and community” because both are important. Early in my career, I managed the reconstruction of schools and hospitals in war-torn Bosnia and Kosovo. (When I drive through the fire-torn areas of Talent, I flashback to Bosnia.) One of the things I learned in Bosnia was that rebuilding community is not just about “sticks and bricks.” It was about people who live in those homes and run those businesses. That’s our community. Talent and Phoenix were the more affordable cities in southern Oregon and the great tragedy of the Almeda Fire was that it hit the most vulnerable the hardest. We’re looking for ways to help those who were the most impacted, but are the least able to hire design and construction professionals, to help us envision how we can rebuild a true community. The fire reached from Ashland to Phoenix, deeply affecting three communities with the heartbreaking loss of lives, homes and businesses. What kind of changes to the City’s building ordinances do you feel would minimize loss should another fire of this type occur in these communities? The pressure for more housing is going to increase density, which makes firewise construction and traffic escape routes all the more important. Last week we completed a Zoning Code Amendment that now allows for metal roofs in the city. Given the speed of the fire, we were very fortunate that people were able to get out in time. We need better emergency communication systems and emergency escape routes – we’re working on a regional effort to address this. What do you most want developers, architects, engineers and contractors to know about the needs of your community in making Talent less susceptible to another fire? We are all in this together. Your insights and expertise are needed in the planning and rebuilding of our community. I’m also looking for a Community Development Director – someone who can work with our residents and regional partners to be part of the rebuilding of our city. It’s legacy work.

Tucker Teutsch III, Executive Director, Remake Talent Remake Talent, according to its website, is a nonprofit created to respond to an evolving situation with concrete ideas for how we can protect our vital community from rampant speculation and unchecked economic gentrification. It seeks to affect change and inclusion within the government planning process in service to community residents and businesses. There is a massive amount of work to be done to get residents back home and businesses back to work after this tragedy, Tucker. What role can the design and construction industry play in the rebirth of the community? The answer to this question is long and complex and will evolve over time, but this is largely related to the part of our mission related to resiliency and affordability. As a long-term recovery organization, we are mostly concerned with systemic change in the approach to rebuilding and strengthening community. Many of the resource providers and avenues for recovery we are pursuing are most applicable not to the individual homeowner, but to the people who are going to be the hands-on forces that rebuild our community: contractors, developers, designers, planners, etc. Thinking about things like supply chains and how to create economies of scale to achieve sustainability; informed approaches to reconstruction that rely on a collaborative, information sharing, community-first methodology, etc. Also, any conversation about large-scale community visioning, intelligent planning, and inclusiveness also has to extend to the construction and development industry. What do you most want the design and construction community to know about the needs of your community in making Talent less susceptible to another fire? I’d like them to know that while building back is the primary goal right now (especially in regard to the lack of housing in every form), “building back better“ in terms of using resilient materials, firewise site planning and landscapes, and building and adding to the infrastructure that adds to our community’s ability to prepare for and recover from the next one will all be part of the mission. And I want them to know that we are right in the center of finding a ton of resources to support that kind of approach in a way that can help offset the cost of doing it better. Thank you to Chief Hanley, Jamie McLeod-Skinner and Tucker Teutsch III for talking with us on this issue. Stay tuned for more interviews around this topic. Please let us know if there are specific questions you would like answered.

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