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Dry February delays pile burning in Ashland Watershed

Ashland Fire & Rescue Forestry Division Chief Chris Chambers estimates about 1,500 acres worth of burn piles await the torch in the Ashland Watershed.

The piles have sat untouched since mid-February because of dry weather, Chambers said.

“Areas that should be wet, and maybe even have snow on them right now, even two weeks ago were too dry to burn,” Chambers said. “Even though we had to break through snow — the snow is stuck in the shade and the cold drainages where creeks come down through the watershed. But once you get through the snow to the more sunny slopes, it’s already too dry. That should not be happening this time of year.”

Crews typically don’t burn all prepared piles in one burn season, Chambers said, adding crews still have until the end of April to get more burning accomplished.

“We thought we would have a really good shot at it this year, but as it turns out, the weather is likely going to hold us back unless we get into a wet pattern later in March,” he said.

While pile burns have been put on hold, forestry crews have continued with underburns that consume fuels on the forest floor. For 2020, AFR crews have burned 85 acres of undergrowth, Chambers said.

“This is remarkable ... that we came into underburn season in February,” Chambers said. “We’re happy that we got the opportunity, but to come into that weather window in February is bittersweet.”

Crews have already begun constructing piles for next year.

“When you start to nudge toward May and fire season, you get worried about fire holding over and burning in a stump or a log, and then popping up on a warm day,” Chambers said. “We’ve had that happen up to six weeks after burning piles, so as we get closer and closer to the change into the dry weather, we become less and less excited about going out there and burning piles.”

As of Feb. 27, Jackson County was listed as being under moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. February 2020 was the 12th driest February in Medford in 109 years of record keeping, National Weather Service Meteorologist Ryan Sandler said, with 0.51 inches of precipitation, about one quarter of the normal 2.01 inches.

The driest February on record was in 1913, when 0.1 inch was recorded in Medford.

The water year begins Oct. 1. The region has seen 7.69 inches of precipitation, which is 4.53 inches below the normal amount of 12.22 inches.

Snowpack for the Rogue and Umpqua basins was at 72% of the median Tuesday, Natural Resources Conservation Service data show.

Some rain is forecast later this week, though it’s not expected to amount to much in Jackson County, Sandler said.

“They’re not big storms,” Sandler said. “For us it looks like it’s anywhere from 0.1 inch to a little over 0.25 inch in places. It’s certainly not a drought buster. It’s better than nothing, but I don’t think it’s going to change the drought category at all.”

A front is expected to push into Southern and Central California next week, which could have some mild effects on our region.

“We might miss, or just be on the edge of that weather system,” Sandler said.

The spring outlook for March through May points to “drier and warmer,” Sandler added.

Reach web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanPfeil.