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Rekindled burn sends smoke into Ashland

Smoke rising from Ashland's watershed early this week was the result of a rekindled prescribed pile-burn on the western flanks of Winburn Ridge.

A cloud of smoke likely will continue rising from the 94-acre unit today, but far less than the amount that billowed from the area on Monday and Tuesday, said Chris Chambers, Ashland Fire & Rescue's forest resource specialist.

South and southeasterly winds topping out at 40 mph re-ignited brush piles initially lit by U.S. Forest Service and Grayback Forestry crews on Jan. 27. As intended, the piles were reduced to a smolder by rain and snow during the week after the burn, but the unexpected winds were enough to fan lasting embers buried inside remaining heavy fuel.

"It's no real threat to anything, just burning up some of the excess fuel that needed to be burning anyway," said Chambers. "But we're concerned about the smoke. ... We'll definitely be reducing the amount of smoke."

Downed logs ignited by nearby piles are also contributing to the smoke, said Virginia Gibbons, Forest Services spokesperson, but they are well within the perimeter of a hand-scratched "checkline" surrounding the unit.

About 50 workers Tuesday mopped up most of what was burning, and will continue working to reduce the amount of smoke coming off the unit today, she said.

"They'll mostly be working to mitigate the smoke," said Gibbons. "The objective isn't to put it completely out."

The burning is part of the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project, a partnership among the city of Ashland, the Forest Service, Lomakatsi Restoration Project and The Nature Conservancy. This year, because of stagnant air in December and much of January, AFR is behind on its scheduled amount of acreage to burn, said Chambers.

"We're looking towards more prescribed burning to be going on in the watershed this year," he said. "We just have to wait for that window, where the weather permits it."

The plan is to conduct controlled pile burning on 400 acres in the watershed before next summer, he said. So far, crews have completed about 150 acres, he said.

And burning will continue for the next few years, as Grayback recently was awarded a $50,000 contract from Lomakatsi to complete up to 1,500 acres of burning in the watershed.

During 2010, Lomakatsi workers thinned and piled many of the units scheduled to be burned.

The objective of the project is to help reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire and improve the overall health of the forest, Chambers said.

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.