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Rain helps forest workers start early

“I hear the bees buzzing but I don’t know where they are,” said Ashland Forest Division Chief Chris Chambers, as he stood in the rain Wednesday morning in the Elkader Street neighborhood with other staff, a neighbor and one excited dog.

Everybody stopped and listened to the rain lightly sprinkling the fallen leaves and tried to place where the chainsaw buzzing was coming from.

It was coming from above the neighbor’s property, where Lomakasti crews were busy cutting large branches and making more manageable piles of underbrush to cure before burning next spring.

Usually, the piles that Ashland Forest Resiliency Project workers create will cure for at least six months or more, but because the piles are so close to the houses in the foothills, they pose more of a potential hazard if they sat dried out for a whole summer.

The unusually early rain this year has allowed the state to lower the fire danger, which means crews can start on forest restoration work earlier than normal.

When it rains in earnest like this, crews can potentially work all day to reduce the amount of fuels in the Ashland forests, Chambers said.

“It’s given us an opportunity to start our work season early and hopefully get a lot more work done this year,” Chambers said.

Crews started work this week after the fire danger was lowered. They can work only in the wet season because they use mechanized tools such as chainsaws, which create a fire hazard in the dry brush.

Neighbor Pat Elston organized AFR to do the work on the Elkader Street neighbors’ property. He got six people to sign up in the first wave. He said his next goal is to get the neighborhood FireWise certified, and the AFR work will help them achieve that goal.

“I like to refer to this as the wick of the fuel,” Elston said, sweeping his arms from a wooden house toward the thick canopy of forest behind it.

He said he’s been working to reduce fuels in his neighborhood for two years.

“I started getting really nervous watching the news and living in the forest,” Elston said. “We all have to take care of our own properties and be responsible for being fire safe.”

Ashland is one of six areas in the state funded to tackle forest health conservation and fuel reduction. AFR was originally tasked with restoring 7,600 acres of federal land in 2010, but it expanded to include an “all lands approach” east and west of Ashland in 2015 and now works on 58,000 acres of land centered on the watershed.

“Now we cover lands from Emigrant Lake to the Siskiyou Summit to Talent,” Chambers said. “Fire doesn’t know any boundaries, so our work shouldn’t know boundaries.”

With the expansion, AFR was given additional funding by partners such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Forest Service and Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.

OWEB recently awarded AFR a $2 million grant, the third installment of a $6 million, six-year project funded by lottery money. This is the final two years of the grant, but there are other funding opportunities to keep it going, including an AFR surcharge on the Ashland utility bill that collects about $175,000 in contributions toward the program annually, Chambers said.

As of June 30, 2,358 acres of work had been completed in Ashland under the OWEB grant.

Since AFR’S inception in 2010, more than 12,000 acres of forest restoration and fuels reduction has been completed.

Forests such as the ones that surround Ashland haven’t seen fire in more than a century, so the forests are choked with fuels. The AFR project works to reduce those fuels and restore forest health, reducing the risk of a catastrophic wildfire.

With healthy spacing between trees and the underbrush gone, it will significantly reduce the chance of a fire spreading quickly, and should help crews to control it more efficiently.

Lomakasti is an AFR partner, and the nonprofit’s Communications Manager Tom Greco said working on private lands in the wildland-urban interface is important because the houses there are essentially in the forest.

Everybody likes to ask how Ashland is prepared against a “Paradise situation,” and this is how, he said.

It takes a joint effort of everyone ensuring their own space fire safe, because fire has always been here and will always be here, especially in an age of climate change, officials say.

“This restoration work is all about restoring the forest to its optimal health, and it’s about ecological thinning,” Greco said. “It’s not just about the fire. This kind of work is helpful to the overall health of the forest. It’s great for wildlife, and it helps protect ecosystem services like drinking water and all the things our community relies on.”

The state relaxed its law around controlled burning this January, allowing smoke from controlled burns to waft into towns up to an air quality index measure of 100 within 24 hours. Previously, it was zero.

Chambers said this will help crews get through the backlog of piles that have accumulated because they were previously so limited in when they could do prescribed burns.

“We get held back by the smoke regulations and the weather, and we don’t get through all those acres, so ... they’ve carried over into this year,” Chambers said.

The change has allowed for one full day of burning that previously couldn’t have been conducted, he said.

“I think people are slowly starting to understand we need some smoke and some fire to make it better,” Chambers said.

At this rate it could still take 20-30 years to get ahead of the problem, officials estimate.

“We know we had one season where the smoke didn’t happen, but there are bad seasons ahead of us,” Chambers said. “The less fuel we have, the safer it will be.”

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Andy Atkinson / Ashland Tidings Lomakatsi worker Arnulfo Tovar makes cuts with his chainsaw clearing out fire danger off Elkader Rd towards the top of South Mountain St.
Andy Atkinson / Ashland Tidings Lomakatsi worker Arnulfo Tovar makes cuts with his chainsaw clearing out fire danger off Elkader Rd towards the top of South Mountain St.