Fire and Smoke: Where thinning is winning
ASHLAND — More than 3,000 lightning bolts all itching to pick a wildfire fight came crashing into Southern Oregon July 15, yet one of those bolts bound for the Ashland watershed never stood a chance.
With great promise, it smashed into a massive 300-plus-year-old Ponderosa pine that rises like a sentry atop Skyline Ridge, which separates the Ashland and Talent watersheds. Scars show the electricity spiraled around the tree three times, blowing off shards of bark, before it unleashed its fiery fury at the tree’s base.
And that was it.
“Nothing became of it,” says Don Boucher, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest’s stewardship coordinator.
That’s because six years of commercial logging, brush-clearing and controlled underburning had removed woody debris and small trees from the ridge, robbing lightning of all it needed to create the devastating wildfire Ashland has feared for decades.
No one knows whether that dud bolt could have triggered an Ashland version of the Carr fire eight days later that burned nearly 230,000 acres and 1,604 structures and killed eight people near Redding. Or last year’s devastating Napa fires that raced through wine country.
No one knows how many acres of trees those treatments saved, how many lungs they spared of smoke, nor how many Shakespeare plays they kept on stage.
“We felt like even if it became a fire, there was no place for it to go,” Boucher says. “There was just no fuel on the ground to burn. At worst it would have been something taken care of by a hand crew.”
But this fire non-story is perhaps one of the most important tales of this summer’s wildfire season because it hints at what the landscape, airshed and all who rely on them can reap by taking Skyline Ridge’s fire-fuels treatment viral throughout the region.
A consortium of city, state and federal agencies as well as conservation groups led by The Nature Conservancy is backing an ambitious plan to treat 1 million acres of public and private forestlands over 20 years to reduce wildfire starts and burning intensities, create safer areas to more safely attack fires that do burn, restore forest health and add to the forest industry and economy.
The Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative’s plan includes proposed commercial logging of 83 million board-feet of timber annually. That would help defray the estimated cost of $30 million a year to re-create the Skyline Ridge effect on a massive scale.
The promise isn’t that smoky summers will go away. Rather, the goal ultimately is to control when and how much smoke gets created and where it goes.
“That’s the recipe we need to apply to the entire landscape,” says Chris Chambers, Ashland Fire & Rescue’s forestry division chief. “We have to let the smoke happen, but we can control where it goes and the amount of it.
“There’s no future for Southern Oregon where there’s no smoke,” Chambers says. “We need then to choose to do pro-active burning and do it on a scale that makes a difference.”
Critics such as Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist for the Geos Institute in Ashland, believe the TNC proposal would cost more like $100 million a year and shouldn’t rely on logging of any larger, merchantable trees. Instead, he believes the roughly 120,000 acres of mostly private clearcuts logged and replanted between 1999 and 2014, which have become dense plantations that DellaSala calls “firebombs,” should be targeted for thinning.
Moreover, DellaSala believes fire-prevention efforts should focus on defending homes and communities from wildfire destruction and reducing home building in wildlands where it’s tough to defend houses from flames.
“The best way is to work from the home out instead of from the wildlands in,” DellaSala says.
Winning through thinning
While the devastation from raging fires and the endless days of unhealthy air dominated this summer’s public chatter, lightning strikes not gaining footholds in treated areas and wildfires losing steam when they hit one became a quiet but recurring theme.
A July 15 lightning strike in the Forest Service’s Bull Gap turned into a dud, and private landowners whose space was recently cleared were able to snuff out fires outside of Talent and Ashland, Chambers says.
The federal Bureau of Land Management saw fuels reduction work affect change in the Snowshoe fire, which fire crews caught and snuffed in a treated stand, BLM District Manager Elizabeth Burghard says.
Also, flames in the Miles fire “finally dropped in severity” when they hit treated areas, including those on private lands, Burghard recently told Jackson County commissioners.
“So we really have to think about the long-term benefits of promoting those and encourage folks to do that,” Burghard says.
The Miles fire reached close to 55,000 acres centered northeast of Trail and was forecast to be contained by Monday, according to the Forest Service. The nearby Snowshoe fire capped out at 3,816 acres.
Both were part of the South Umpqua Complex of fires ignited during the same lightning storm that didn’t torch Skyline Ridge beneath its sentry Ponderosa pine.
Skyline Ridge is one of the early tracts treated as part of the ambitious Ashland Fire and Resilience Stewardship Project that covered about 7,600 acres in the watershed. A blend of this project, commonly called AFR, as well as a companion program on private lands called the Ashland Forest All-Hands Restoration project (AFAR), is touted by supporters as the blueprint for the 1 million-acre approach addressed in the Rogue Basin Cohesive Forest Restoration Strategy.
In the Skyline Ridge portion of AFR, crews used chainsaws and other hand equipment to cut and pile brush in 2012. The following year, commercial loggers removed understory trees and some canopy trees to open areas around larger trees like the Ponderosa pine.
The brush piles were burned in 2015, and in 2017 the area underwent an underburn — burning off debris along the forest floor in a light and controlled fashion to use what’s good about fire without destroying more mature trees.
Collectively, the treatment removed the small fuels where fires begin, reduced the medium fuels that give wildfires their power and took away the understory trees that flames use as a stairway to the crowns of large trees.
These so-called canopy fires are the intense and fast-moving fires that can race across watersheds with devastating effects.
“If we have a fire on the ground, it’s not going to get into the canopy,” Boucher says.
The net result is a stand where firefighters can get the upper leg on flames by attacking them faster and dropping fire retardant that hits the ground instead of getting blocked by a more dense canopy.
“This work certainly improves our ability to get in quickly and get those fires out,” says Darren Borgias, the TNC’s southwest Oregon program director.
Averaging about $1,000 an acre for mechanical treatment, AFR cost about $7.6 million, with about $5.5 million offset by the commercial logging receipts.
On private lands, similar fuels-reduction projects like AFAR since 2010 have spent more than $8 million to help 140 landowners treat more than 8,300 acres under grants administered through the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“It pales in comparison to the need,” says Erin Kurtz, the NRCS’s district conservationist. “But we have to start somewhere.”
Other projects now in the pipeline include the Stella Landscape Restoration Project that plans on doing AFR-like work within a 65,000-acre footprint within Forest Service land north and west of Prospect and reaching into Douglas County.
DellaSala says regardless of what approach is used to reduce wildfire ignitions, sizes and intensities locally, they won’t cure the valley’s smoke problem. That’s because smoke riding jet streams into the valley get trapped here by mountains and air inversions, all exacerbated by a changing climate that’s ratcheting up wildfire hazards throughout the West and Canada.
“We have to get brave and reform our forestry practices that are climate- and fire-smart,” DellaSala says.
Historically, one of the hurdles to controlled burning is a general feeling among Rogue Valley residents that smoke is smoke regardless of the intent.
Controlled burns are done after wildfire seasons and often come at a time when residents finally can breathe fresh air, so these burns often have drawn criticism.
Also, it’s a tough what-if game to play because it is impossible to determine how controlled smoke in late fall reduces out-of-control smoke in ensuing summers, Chambers says.
But the weariness of recent summers has pushed the public smoke discussion into new levels, Chambers says.
“I do think that people are starting to get it,” Chambers says.
“It’s a drag for everybody to have to survive this,” he says. “But if we don’t do anything, there is no end in sight for smoky skies. We really have to do this in a large scope.”