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Trading smoke for smoke

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Coming on the heels of the summer wildfire season that saw a record for unhealthy air days in Medford, the Forest Service is prepping for its winter burning season designed to reduce wildfire risk and intensity by swapping a little smoke now for less later.

The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest announced plans Thursday to conduct low-intensity burns on more than 8,900 acres of piled brush and ground-level vegetation on days when weather and winds are least likely to create offensive smoke conditions.

The burns, often called prescribed or controlled burns, are all in areas where the agency already has invested in other fuels-reduction work such as thinning.

“During the fire season, we have to deal with the hand that’s dealt us,” said Rob Budge, the forest’s fire staff officer. “We don’t have control of the intensity, the smoke and where it goes. We don’t have the opportunity to change things, to put them in our favor like we can with prescribed burns.”

Reintroducing smoke into the air shortly after the summer wildfire season has been a bone of public contention in the past. But coming off a summer smoke season that included 23 unhealthy air-quality days in Medford that rocked the tourist economy, the Rogue Valley is collectively yet begrudgingly warming to accepting smoke from controlled fire over uncontrolled wildfire.

“We’ve heard loud and clear — we need more fuel treatment done,” Budge said. “People are becoming more accepting (of prescribed burns). I think we’re getting there, but we have a long way to go.”

The burns will begin in a few weeks, when moisture levels increase enough to help crews control flames but not enough to reduce burn effectiveness, Budge said. Initial fires will be on the ground, followed by burn piles that can smolder for days.

The planned acreage is about normal for the Rogue River-Siskiyou Forest and represents a wish-list based on conditions, Budge said.

The burning will be done when allowed by Oregon Department of Forestry meteorologists based on weather and wind conditions to curb smoke flows into cities, rural communities and other sensitive areas.

State foresters are in the midst of studying proposals to more widely open the window of when to burn, and how much they can burn while still remaining within certain state and federal air-quality standards. If adopted, those rules could be in effect by next spring, according to ODF.

Some of the most highly visible local burns will be the 1,848 acres of stacked piles and 204 acres of underburning in the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project, a partnership involving the Forest Service, the city of Ashland and others to treat about 7,600 acres this decade within the fire-prone Ashland watershed.

Some of the work scheduled is near private lands that are at-risk from wildfire, while others are set as wildlife-enhancement projects such as reclaiming meadows from encroaching conifers.

All the prescribed burns will follow specific plans that target the lower fuels while protecting larger trees and soils. Removing pieces of the understory robs wildfires of the ability to grow skyward and reach the canopies of larger trees, a phenomenon called crowning.

The various planned burns are prioritized on the district level.

Other high-profile burns will be 793 acres planned in the Upper Applegate area, which includes tracts of private land.

Other visible burning will be on 3,500 acres in the Wild Rivers Ranger District based largely in Josephine County, including the Waters Creek and Hayes Hill areas where recent projects were carried out.

Another 1,280 acres of treatments are planned for the Big Butte Springs watershed and Gingko Basin, as well as more than 1,000 acres of burning planned for the Powers Ranger District.

Some of the projects include 85 acres of slash from damaged-tree removal projects from last year’s Chetco Bar fire east of Brookings.

While the acreage of planned burning has changed little, the Forest Service’s public outreach before the burning season has.

The Forest Service and the Rogue Valley Interagency Communications Center have created a more accessible website at http://orrvc.org/rxfire.shtml that will daily list prescribed burns by estimated date and time of ignition, size and location. The website will break them out by Forest Service ranger districts, Bureau of Land Management resource areas, and Oregon Caves National Monument.

The Forest Service released its burn plans in Spanish to improve outreach and also has produced an in-house video describing to the public why agencies conduct these burns.

“The AFR partners have been doing this for years, but we are doing it now across the region,” forest spokeswoman Chamise Kramer said. “It definitely helps lay it out for the public. We’ll see how people respond to it.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTwriterFreeman.

A controlled burn rips through underbrush south of Hyatt Lake on private property during a prescribed burn. Mail Tribune / File Photo