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Fighting fire with fire

For many, coming in contact with any kind of forest fire may prompt panic. But for Susan Prichard, University of Washington fire ecologist, the fire of prescribed burns is a good thing, the best way to combat devastating wildfires that have been on the rise in recent years.

Prichard gave a talk at Southern Oregon University last week, addressing the catastrophic damage of wildfires, specifically around her home in Washington’s Methow Valley, in addition to how communities can adapt to the fires and plan for them. The talk was given as part of the Ashland Prescribed Fire Training Exchange, or TREX, which teaches safe and effective uses of controlled burning to trainees from 20 organizations from four countries and seven U.S. states.

“We now know that it’s not if we’re going to get a fire, it’s when we’re getting a fire,” said Prichard. “So the question is now ‘How do you like your smoke?,’” referring to the thin white smoke of controlled burns instead of the heavier uncontrolled smoke from wildfires.

Prichard studied three major fires in the past decade in Washington state: the Tripod, Carlton and Okanogan Complex fires that collectively burned more than 700,000 acres of land. “These huge fires, even though they’re much bigger than what we want, they do have a big impact on how fires spread,” she said. She used data from her studies to determine what type of land was being affected, the type of fuel that was burning, preventive measures that could have been taken to avoid the destruction of property and, in some cases, casualties.

According to Prichard, prescribed burning, in which trained firefighters burn brush and other plants out of the base of a forest to prevent more disastrous fires, is one of the most effective ways a community can safeguard against wildfires. Despite that, Prichard says, the U.S. Forest Service has actually reduced the number of acres they’re burning since the increase of wildfires.

“I think taking fire out or active fire suppression is one of the most consequential management decisions we make,” said Prichard.

“When they only hear the story about fire being a threat or emergency they don’t understand that it can be a really beneficial good thing for a landscape,” said Amanda Stamper, incident commander of TREX.

Stamper, who has been working in fire management since 1999, said the best way to advocate for prescribed fires is to involve the community in breaking down the common fear of fire and showing how it can be done in mild conditions.

“In the United States we have mostly oriented ourselves to being on the defensive, when really we would be working with fire, not against it,” she said.

Stamper said 42 participants took part in the Ashland TREX program. “The idea is that we bring experienced firefighters together with folks that have not as much experience but have an interest in learning and becoming part of a fire adapted community,” she said.

“I think most of us kind of grow up with a slight fear of fire and I would encourage people to really take a look at what fire can look like in our landscape,” said Aisha Wiig, TREX training officer.

“I’m a stubborn optimist and I think there’s a lot of reasons, especially with the use of fire, that we can be optimistic about building more resilience in these landscapes,” said Prichard.

— Ashland freelance writer Hannah Jones is editor of The Siskiyou, the Southern Oregon University student-run news website. Email her at hannah.m.jones21@gmail.com.

A fire crew working with the TREX program prepares for a controlled burn in the Ashland Watershed on Wednesday. [Mail Tribune/Jamie Lusch]