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Controlled burns kick off in Ashland watershed

In an effort to make forests south of Talent and Ashland more fire resistant next summer, crews have started their annual ritual of controlled burns, so don’t be alarmed when you see smoke rising from the hills.

Combined crews from Lomakatsi Restoration Project, Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and Grayback Forestry go out and torch about 3,000 acres of burn piles straight through to the start of fire season about early April, says Ashland Wildfire Division Chief Chris Chambers.

They burn on a stretch of mountain from Wagner Creek in Talent to the Siskiyou Summit and target days after soaking rain and when there is low wind, he says, to keep smoke out of urban areas.

The pandemic has put a special spin on this 10-year-old practice. “We’re going to be extra cautious and not put smoke into town if we can avoid it, because vulnerable people are more vulnerable to smoke,” Chambers says. “People with asthma, heart conditions, with COVID on top of it. It has to make them more susceptible, though it’s not established in the scientific literature.”

This region’s conifer forests are fire-adapted, but over the years officials have doused fires in favor of logging and grazing, Chambers says. Burning slash makes the watershed more fire-resilient and greatly increases the security of Ashland’s water supply, which is mainly from those hills.

The burn piles are ready for fire because they’re covered and dry and surrounding ground is wet.

The burns are funded by a portion of the Ashland city water bill, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Natural Resources Conservation Service and private landowners.

People generally think of wildfire as happening in forests, but the Sept. 8 firestorm taught a painful lesson that “we can’t ignore areas because they aren’t forested,” he says. “There’s still a lot of hazardous conditions. The Almeda fire didn’t burn forest, except for the riparian area on Bear Creek.

“There’s a whole new effort underway to address Bear Creek. We do a lot through the weed abatement program. And we learned that under certain weather conditions, fire can overwhelm us. We have to be ready to evacuate.”

Chambers says Ashland is happy with its alert system, Nixle, which sent 14 alerts on evacuation and traffic. Most complaints after the Almeda fire were “focused on the county side. They have a different system. We did a good job on alerting Ashland,” he says.

More information about local controlled burning can be found online at ashlandwatershed.org. Residents can sign up for Nixle nonemergency alerts on controlled burning by texting WATERSHED to 888777. People can sign up for emails on the subject at ashlandwatershed.org. Tips on protecting your home can be seen at fireadaptedashland.org.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

file photoOfficials started controlled burns Wednesday near Ashland.