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Burn bosses back on the job

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ASHLAND — The U.S. Forest Service has resumed controlled burns to reduce wildfire hazards in the Ashland Watershed despite the federal government shutdown after three “burn bosses” were taken off furloughs this week.

Contract crews working on the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project, known as AFR, touched off stacked burn piles today on about 30 acres in the Ostrich Peak area, a key battleground to stave off a future wildfire moving from the Wagner Creek watershed toward Ashland.

That work followed 14 acres of nearby burning Wednesday, the first controlled burns on federal lands here since 800,000 federal workers, including many from the Forest Service, were furloughed 35 days ago.

Smoke from the controlled burn rose high in the air and floated away from Ashland in a textbook example burning away brush, small trees and other fuels in a controlled fashion in winter to reduce the risk of catastrophic summer wildfires.

“It’s good to see smoke in the air,” said Chris Chambers, forestry division chief for Ashland Fire & Rescue, one of several government and private partners in AFR, which this decade is treating about 7,800 acres of the fire-prone Ashland Watershed.

AFR was expected to resume controlled burns Jan. 2 after conducting burns on 954 acres of pretreated lands. But the shutdown sidelined burn bosses, whose presence is needed on the ground during potential burn days to make the final call before drip torches are lit.

Chambers said the unnamed burn bosses are being paid, but he did not know where the money came from or how long it will last. AFR partners expect to take advantage of the burning opportunities as long as possible to get at the roughly 1,500 more acres tapped for burning before the summer wildlfire season begins.

“We’ll keep chipping away at it,” Chambers said. “It’s really important work to get us ahead of the game before fire season gets here.”

Chambers said the employees taken off furlough also will be working on starting the process to get summer contract fire crews in place before the wildfire season begins.

Chambers said the AFR partners were grateful that the Forest Service prioritized the AFR’s wildfire hazard-reduction and got “above the fray of the politics of the shutdown and get this critical work done.”

The Forest Service’s Region 6 officials refused to comment or discuss when and why the reclassification of burn bosses from unessential employees was made, referring all inquiries to the agency’s Washington, D.C., office. A Mail Tribune email to that office was returned, saying no press inquiries will be taken until the shutdown is over.

The only reference by the Forest Service to the pile burning were contained in a city of Ashland notice Wednesday.

“Even though the partial government shutdown continues, the Forest and Region recognize this important work as a limited time frame to accomplish these necessary fuels treatment,” the city’s statement reads.

The contract crews doing the burning were from Grayback and the Lomakatsi Restoration Project, both being paid by the city of Ashland and an Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board grant, Chambers said. Therefore, no other federal dollars were spent Wednesday and today on the burns, he said.

“The workers were here,” Chambers said. “We just needed the burn bosses in place.”

As soon as AFR officials received word of the reversed furlough, they used the good burning conditions of Wednesday and today to remove piles of previously cut trees and brush in Horned Gap.

If a future wildfire in the Wagner Creek drainage were to jump into the Ashland Watershed and threaten Ashland, this gap is the most likely place for that to happen, Chambers said.

“This is our defensible space for the watershed, right here,” Chambers said.

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

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneChris Chambers, forestry division chief for Ashland Fire & Rescue, walks through a controlled burn to reduce wildfire hazards in the Ashland Watershed on Thursday.