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Woodlands group will revise plan for clearing

Jacksonville residents may hear wood chippers snarling in the hills above town this fall.

The Jacksonville Woodlands Association plans to chip, rather than burn, some of the woody debris that has been cut and piled on 340 wooded acres around the city. Volunteers from the nonprofit group also will try to ease residents' concerns about possible health effects of smoke inhalation.

Association members decided to modify their plan after 60 city residents petitioned the City Council to halt the burn plan.

We don't want to be perceived as trying to push this thing through, said association president Larry Smith.

Smith said Monday that the association still hopes to burn some piles next fall, after rains dampen the ground enough to reduce the danger of fire spreading. Over the next few months, the association will develop a plan for chipping debris piles nearest homes where residents have expressed misgivings about the burning plan.

Details of the plan will be developed as volunteers talk with neighbors in the project area, Smith said. Money will be a crucial issue. Chipping takes more time than burning, which makes it far more expensive.

The organization developed the cut-and-burn project to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic fire in the woods around the city. Prior to Europeans' arrival in Southern Oregon in the 1850s, fire burned through what would become Jacksonville as often as every five years. Fires were mostly small because there was little to burn.

Fire suppression during the past century has allowed more trees to grow. With more trees in the woods, and more woody debris on the ground, any fire that breaks out has the potential to burn out of control.

Work crews have thinned small trees and cut the lower branches of remaining trees to prevent fire from climbing off the ground into the branches, needles and leaves of trees. Trimmings were heaped in piles no larger than 8 feet around and 5 feet high, said Tom Schroeter, a forester who helped organize the project.

The piles were kept deliberately small, Schroeter said, to burn quickly and limit the chances that they would burn standing trees or creep along the ground.

The goal is to move toward a large-tree, mature-tree backdrop for Jacksonville, he said.

People who live near the project area understand the need to reduce the fire danger, said Hank Delladio, who delivered the anti-burning petition to the city council. But they want to know more about the project.

Questions about the health effects of smoke, particularly from burning poison oak, remain a major issue, Delladio said.

We're not getting any (information) that says 'Not to worry,' he said.

Maybe more information just has to be gotten out there, he said. Maybe people need to be reassured that the Jacksonville Woodlands Association knows what it's doing.

Delladio said controlled burning may not be a suitable forest-management tool in wooded areas adjacent to Jacksonville and other small towns.

It may work in Ruch, where every house is on 10 acres, he said. You don't handle (burning near town) the way you handle something out in Ruch.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492, or e-mail