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Guest Opinion: Controlled burns vital to maintain fire resilience

Controlled burns for community safety and forest health were conducted in the Ashland Watershed on May 14 and 15. In the evening, smoke from the burns settled into town. The smoke lingered through the night before dispersing. The next day the city received some negative reactions via email and social media. This report explains what happened and why, discusses some implications and describes resources the public can use to deal with such situations as well as prolonged smoke incidents of the kind that occurred last summer.

First some facts: Two controlled burns took place. Both were under the supervision of experienced burn bosses and both complied with all official specifications for controlled burning. Both were conducted with permission and guidance from Oregon Department of Forestry meteorologists whose job it is to regulate controlled burning throughout the state.

The smoke that settled in town is officially considered an “intrusion” because it involved observable smoke at ground level. The intensity of the smoke as measured at Fire House No. 1 peaked twice during the night, at 58 (8 p.m.) and 53 (6 a.m.). On the EPA Air Quality Index these peaks fall in the “moderate” range (51-100).

The intrusion occurred because winds predicted by the meteorologists expected to carry smoke from the burn away from town failed to materialize. Of the more than 8,000 acres of controlled burns conducted in connection with Ashland Forest Resiliency project since its inception in 2010, there has been only one recorded intrusion: this one.

Why do we conduct controlled burns? The first phase of AFR involves removing excess fuel from the watershed, making it significantly less susceptible to high-intensity wildfire. Controlled burning is the only affordable method of maintaining low fuel levels. Maintaining low fuel levels is a permanent maintenance requirement of a wildfire-resilient watershed forest, just as our street system and our other infrastructure requires periodic maintenance to preserve functionality.

But isn’t this smoke harmful to people’s health? For people with normal constitutions, only long-term exposure to smoke of the ratings that occurred on May 14 and 15 has been scientifically determined to be harmful. But smoke at any level can cause problems for individuals with certain health conditions. The major threat is not a few hours of 58-level smoke from a controlled burn but the four continuous weeks of level 150-plus such as we experienced last summer/fall.

What can smoke-vulnerable people do to protect themselves? What measures are available to everyone in our community during prolonged wildfire smoke that collects in town? Smoke-vulnerable people should consult with their doctors about precautions and preparations for the possibility of smoke from any source. The AQI Moderate standard says, “Air quality is acceptable; however, for some pollutants there may be a moderate health concern for a very small number of people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution.”

The Ashland Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with Ashland Fire & Rescue, has developed a program to help guide businesses and residents in tackling issues of wildfire smoke. After the fires from last summer and resulting smoke we all experienced, we realized we needed to be more prepared should we experience smoke again from forest fires. A workshop for small businesses was conducted in February and four short videos were created on how to prepare for smoke that are now available on the Chamber website (www.ashlandchamber.com/smoke) and the city website (www.ashland.or.us/smoke). These websites feature videos on what type of mask to purchase and how to wear it, equipment recommendations such as filters and air cleaners to mitigate smoke impacts and how to interpret air quality data. You will also find a Smoke Awareness Guide with advice on equipment and communications. On the Ashland Forest Resiliency website (www.ashland.or.us/smoke), you will also find information on air quality, how and why prescribed burns are conducted and helpful contacts. Additionally, there are articles from other western cities that have experienced similar smoke events.

The bottom line is that maintaining low fuels levels requires controlled burning and occasionally, despite following all the best practices, some smoke will come into town. The major health threat to the general population, however, is smoke from wildfires that may occur far away from town but migrate here and settle in our airshed for prolonged periods of time. The intrusion on Mother’s Day shocked us all and we’ll ensure this doesn’t become a tradition but, as a community, we need to adapt to the inevitability of smoke from remote fires as part of climate change and to occasional “moderate” intrusions as part of maintaining our fire security infrastructure.

If you have further questions, please send them to the mayor and we’ll answer them in a future Tidings report and on the city website.

John Stromberg is mayor of Ashland. Sandra Slattery is executive director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce. Chris Chambers is Forest Division chief for Ashland Fire & Rescue.