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Trying to change the fire trend

Blooming flowers and wet gardens may give one the impression that fire season is still a ways off and needn’t be worried about yet. But a glance in the direction of the watershed in recent weeks shows that the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project is already working hard to make the next fire season less fiery.

Chris Chambers, Ashland Fire & Rescue’s forest division chief, said recently that the upcoming fire season is expected to be harsh.

“We have a growing number of wildfires, and the acreage of those fires are growing, and the severity of those fires are on an upward trend,” Chambers said at the March meeting of the New Day Network. “Which is not characteristic of our southern Oregon forest and woodlands.”

He explained that, historically, the forests of southern Oregon and much of the Pacific Northwest consistently saw small wildfires. These natural wildfires benefited the ecosystem by eliminating underbrush and other extremely flammable plant growth that otherwise acts as a “fuel ladder” to higher portions of the woodland. These small fires burned yearly and created patches of woodland that didn’t build up the conditions that breed the large fires we see today. It also encouraged the growth of native, fire-tolerant plant species.

But, since the multi-million-acre fires of the late 1800s and early 1900s, we’ve been taught to extinguish all wildfires. The expanse of urban development in areas prone to wildfire has made this a very dangerous scenario, Chambers said.

“This is not a natural landscape and we need to do something to correct it,” Chambers said.

Extinguishing smaller fires allows an abundance of flammable plant growth to thrive, which in turn feeds wildfires and causes them to spread quickly. The Western landscape has experienced multiple megafires in the past decade, which are wildfires burning more than 100,000 acres, Chambers said. These fires are destroying the natural ecosystem and depleting the native, fire-tolerant plant species, creating grounds where invasive, flammable plant species thrive, in turn feeding the cycle.

Chambers said wildfire has replaced logging as the main cause for the spotted owls’ habitat loss.

“We’re losing some things that are really important to us. We’re losing special places on the landscape that people have gone to for generations,” Chambers said. “And we won’t see those places recover, certainly not in my lifetime, not in my kids’ lifetime, and maybe never, because of the trajectory of climate change and the way forests are developing post-wildfire.”

Ashland manages some 800 acres of city forest lands and approximately 1,100 acres of park lands. The Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project originated from the recognition that action needed to happen to sustain forest composition. Partners in the project include the city of Ashland, Lomakatsi Restoration Project, the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. It’s been in place roughly eight years now, Chambers said.

“When the wildfires come, because it will come, and it’s coming to many communities across the Western United states,” Chambers said. “I hate to say, and this is the bad news, but it’s not going to go away anytime soon.”

He said the status of the wildlands coupled with the rate of climate change has professionals predicting increased yearly wildfires and a lot of smoke.

“We’re at a point now where we can choose to embrace a different future and accept that we need loggers, and we need the timber industry to help,” Chambers said.

He said that Ashland is a model for other communities looking to improve forest resiliency.

He said over time they’re hoping to decrease the amount of smoke in the summers by 40-50 percent, but that will take decades. Although the small controlled burns going on now aren’t affecting people, he recommends stocking up on air filters and face masks now before dense summer smoke sets in.

He suggested the most necessary precaution for citizens to take is to minimize or eliminate foliage and flammable growth around buildings, and keep gutters clean of dried leaves and pine needles.

“Embers of fires can travel many miles away from the fire,” Chambers cautioned.

Although not yet so designated by the City Council, Chambers said essentially all of Ashland city limits is within a fire-danger zone and the new classification has been proposed.

Ultimately, the long-term predictions of the upcoming fire season are based off trends, and the weather service will announce predictions for this summer by May, if not April, Chambers said.

The impact of the relatively low amount of precipitation Ashland received this winter also isn’t yet known. Chambers said last year serves as the perfect example, because the record high amount of moisture in the forest quickly turned to a record low amount of moisture due to heat waves.

“This year is predicted to be a warmer and dryer summer than normal, but those (predictions) change,” Chambers said.

More information can be found at ashlandwatershed.org.

The Rogue Valley New Day Network was formed to promote peace, justice and sustainability in the Rogue Valley and is open to the community, Deborah Rothschild, steering committee member, said.

A meeting is held the third Friday of the month, excluding summer, with a breakfast potluck at the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at 87 Fourth St. in Ashland. Breakfast begins at 8 a.m. and the presentation at 8:30. At 9 a.m. others can make announcements and requests for collaboration.

April’s speaker will be state Rep. Pam Marsh.

For more information, contact Rothschild at rothschilddeb@gmail.com.

— Contact Ashland freelance writer Caitlin Fowlkes at Caitlin.fowlkes@gmail.com.