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AFR: 2,500 acres to go

The Ashland Forest Resiliency Project team burned 942 acres of slash in the town’s watershed over the fall, making a significant dent in the 2,500 acres it hopes to torch during controlled burns leading up to the start of the 2019 fire season.

AFR’s goal: to rid the watershed of ladder fuels that can lead to catastrophic fires.

The prescribed burns gobbled up 47,100 “piles of sticks” that resulted from thinning work by Lomakatsi Restoration Project, Grayback Forestry, Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and The Nature Conservancy, all overseen by Ashland Fire & Rescue.

Starting Jan. 2, AFR will resume prescribed burns, carefully restricting them to days when winds will carry smoke away from town, says Chris Chambers, Ashland Fire & Rescue battalion chief.

Because of an extremely dry fall, controlled burning didn’t start until after Thanksgiving, when enough rain had fallen to burn safely.

“We’ll be doing burns between now and till we run out of moisture around mid-April to May 1 and it gets too dry,” says Chambers. “We’re thinning forests to protect the community before wildfire comes and to create a healthier ecosystem by restoring it to the way it was prior to European settlement and fire suppression policies.

“We have at least three times more trees than existed back then, when fires burned it about every eight years. Some of this forest hasn’t seen fire for 100 to 160 years.”

AFR plans to finish 7,500 acres next year in the last year of the project, then maintain that historic eight-year interval of burning underbrush. Crews typically thin and burn piles to mid-April, then do underburning of brush and small trees through mid-June.

“If fire starts in the hills above town, we’re doing all we can to stop opportunities for it to come in town,” Chambers says, but cautions that winds can carry embers a long way. Residents should clear out gutters and keep bark mulch, hedges and other flammables away from their homes, he says.

City and fire officials are working to remove overgrown blackberry bushes, dry grass and weeds north and west of town as well. “These worry me as much as the hills above town,” Chambers says. To this end, the city will stage a free debris drop in May for residents.

The city also is revamping its evacuation plan in light of the disastrous bottlenecks during the Paradise, California, fire in November, Chambers says.

Noting that climate change will exacerbate Southern Oregon’s hot, dry summers, Chambers says Ashland is working with other agencies and landowners from Talent and Emigrant Lake to the Siskiyous “to create a kind of large-scale firebreak.”

Ashland is vulnerable to warm, east winds that can quickly turn a grass fire into a conflagration. Chambers recalls the 2009 Siskiyou fire, centered around Tolman Creek Road and Siskiyou Boulevard.

“It only burned one house. We saved a lot of houses and kept it out of the city, which was an incredible feat,” Chambers says. “It was very close to getting out of control. The dry, east winds were 40 mph. That’s not uncommon. It wasn’t as bad as they get in the Bay Area and Southern California, but it was bad.

“In the big picture, we’re doing a targeted outreach and trying to put all those pieces of the puzzle together. It feels much more important now, because of what happened in Paradise. That’s everyone’s question now: How do we keep fire at bay?”

Reach Ashland freelancer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Ashland Forest Resiliency crews monitor prescribed burns in the Ashland watershed. Photo courtesy AFR