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Drought and dying pines: Addressing fire danger

As you may have noticed, there are more red and brown needles on our hillsides since last year.

It’s no surprise that the extended drought and extreme heat is causing trees a lot of hardship, and some are just not able to defend against insects and diseases, not unlike our own health when we don’t take care of ourselves.

Ponderosa pines have been particularly vulnerable to bark beetle attack during the drought. There are large patches of dead Ponderosas in several locations around Ashland, including the hillsides above Lithia Park, the Red Queen Trailhead at Terrace Street and Ashland Loop Road, and scattered single dead trees and groups of a few or more beetle-killed pine trees in various places around town. Beetles have evolved to find susceptible trees, and drought has left no shortage of them.

One of our jobs in the Wildfire Division at Ashland Fire & Rescue is looking after our city-owned forestlands. The city land surrounding the underground water tank at the Red Queen Trailhead is experiencing an alarming outbreak of western pine beetles, likely mixed in with another beetle called Ips. Western pine beetles are known for attacking drought-stricken but otherwise healthy — and often large — trees, killing a high percentage of them over an area that may expand over time if drought continues to provide more beetle fodder and beetles are left to complete their life cycles.

Western bark beetles and their larvae are in the trees right now, waiting for warm weather to emerge and fly to adjacent green trees and kill them … a process that can happen up to 3 times in a warm spring and summer. You can imagine that many more trees may die if we don’t act quickly. And that could still happen because of elevated beetle populations across our forests.

People who live close to upper Terrace Street or frequent the trails there will see a drastic change sometime in March as we remove the trees (and beetles), burn the tops and branches, and haul away the infested wood. There isn’t much value to the wood, but we’re trying to find a local mill to take it, or it may end up as firewood. Some ground will be disturbed by equipment, but we’ll do our best to restore any damage and mitigate the potential for any erosion.

The Red Queen infestation is in a bad spot with homes all around, a busy trail, city street, the reservoir, and a water pump station all in the immediate zone. We’re particularly concerned about the developing fire danger as trees continue to die, needles and branches fall, and whole trees eventually hit the ground … not to mention the safety of hikers on the trails. Cutting down the dead and partially dead trees is the only responsible course of action, though heartbreaking as it is to see larger trees removed.

When this work takes place there will be machinery in the area and roads and trails will have to be closed for a few days in March. The follow-up burning of limbs will take place with all precautions in place for safety and smoke management.

If you have questions about this project, email Chris Chambers at chris.chambers@ashland.or.us. A notice will be sent to neighbors and posted on the city’s website at www.ashland.or.us when the work is scheduled. Thank you for your patience on this challenging issue.