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Enjoy the summer? Thank a firefighter

We clearly enjoyed ourselves this summer and early fall. Skies were blue, rain fell in August and into September, and the collective sigh of relief was palpable. If you enjoyed what we used to know as a normal summer, thank a firefighter. Send a letter to the Oregon Department of Forestry or the U.S. Forest Service, or take cookies to a local fire station because lots of fire started in Southwest Oregon this summer, but firefighters braved the smoke so you wouldn’t have to and put them out. At least two ended up in the hospital, one with serious injuries after a tree fell on him and another had a rock strike his helmet working on steep slopes at the Milepost 97 fire. It was lucky that he didn’t get killed.

In this new era of warming climate, layered on top of a century and half of accumulated fuels and flammable plantations, we’re asking an awful lot of our firefighting community. And they’re not the type to complain about it, but there are limits. Studies point to a quickly worsening outlook for fire and smoke, as much as 400% more burned acres by mid-century in our neck of the woods. We naturally lean toward asking the firefighting community to double down on suppressing fires that have become increasingly difficult to attack. The Milepost 97 fire took off on incredibly steep slopes covered in brush and dead trees from a previous fire 30 years before. This is increasingly common that fires are burning in old fire scars, posing serious challenges to safety. Both the Chetco Bar and Klondike fires started in remote wilderness with no road access, fields of dead trees, dense brush and nowhere to find the required safety zones drilled into every firefighter’s brain during training. When dozens of fires start simultaneously, protecting homes and communities outweighs these remote and dangerous fire starts. It’s a simple triage exercise. So, what can we do?

The needed work to find a better future will come not from bigger retardant planes, but from workers (often the same firefighters) cutting brush and small trees and using fire proactively in controlled burns to get rid of hazardous fuels outside of the heat of summer. This is truly the only path forward. And it just so happens that the local forests need thinning to restore their vitality in the face of increasing droughts and worsening fires.

Continuing in our 10th year this fall, you will see smoke in the hills above our town and hear chainsaws buzzing in the woods across private, city, and U.S. Forest Service lands under the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project. We can’t work fast enough to address the core of the issue in that fires need fuel, and without as much fuel, we have better chances to catch fires while they’re small. In fire suppression there’s an implicit deal: For each fire we put out, we must use controlled burning in the cooler months to emulate the work that regular burns did for thousands of years under the watchful eye of indigenous tribes, consuming dead branches and needles, and killing smaller trees before they fill in the forest to unsustainable and unhealthy numbers. All populations have a tipping point, and nature always has a correction factor. We’re experiencing that correction and it hasn’t been safe or healthy for people and the ecosystem.

So, when you’re writing that letter to thank the firefighters, include a sentence or two thanking the folks who are orchestrating and carrying out forest restoration and fuels reduction work. It’s also dangerous and hard work with lots of smoke. The good news is though you will see smoke, you won’t often breathe it. And when you do, please accept our apologies but know that we’re all working for a better future and safer conditions during the dry and hot summers ahead.

Chris Chambers is the Ashland Fire & Rescue Forest Division Chief. The Alarm Box, a column with local public safety information, appears triweekly in the Tidings.

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