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Try not to overreact to ‘underburns’

Yes, those are smoke plumes in the forest above Ashland. Not fog, not steam. Smoke. Yes, it can be disturbing to see them, especially for those who lost homes and possessions in the Almeda fire last year. But that is precisely why they are there: Forestry crews are racing against the clock to get as much prescribed burning done as they can before fire season begins.

These are not piles of slash and debris being burned. Those burns have happened too, but earlier, when conditions were wetter and burning piles less likely to escape and start wildfires.

These are what is known as underburns — low-intensity, slow-moving flames that creep along the forest floor, consuming underbrush as they go.

That’s what forestry specialists and wildland firefighters refer to as “good fire” — the kind that keeps the undergrowth down without damaging standing timber. That kind of fire once was a natural and frequent occurrence.

Not so much these days, because decades of fire suppression have allowed undergrowth to accumulate the point that flames can quickly climb into the tree canopy and become a runaway wildfire. So forestry crews have to give the forest some help, deliberately igniting strips of underbrush and watching carefully, water at the ready, as the fire does its work.

As Chris Chambers, Ashland Fire & Rescue Forestry Division chief, explains in a story in today’s Mail Tribune, “We’ve had to really get the landscape repaired to accept this kind of fire, because it has really changed a lot in 150 years. A lot of undergrowth, a lot of dense trees.”

This kind of work is slow, and it won’t be completed in a few months or even a few years. But it’s vital to prevent wildfire from racing out of the woods and into residential areas.

The burning is timed to coincide with periods of good ventilation, when breezes will carry the smoke up and away from populated areas. It’s scientific, but it’s not always precise. Conditions can change quickly, and sometimes smoke finds its way into town despite fire officials’ best efforts.

That’s annoying, and difficult for those with respiratory problems. But it’s relatively mild, and it’s temporary — a far cry from the weeks of dense, choking smoke we have all experienced over the past few summers.

Prescribed burns are not magic. They won’t eliminate all risk of uncontrolled wildfire. But they can reduce it.

So, just as forestry crews have worked to repair the landscape so it will “accept this kind of fire,” it’s important that valley residents learn to accept it, too.