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2020 Hindsight: Pandemic restrictions threaten forest health

Editor's note: This is the third of an eight-part series looking back at what lessons can be taken from the tumultuous year of 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic initially arose as a public health issue and quickly surged into an economic issue throughout 2020, but it has also become an environmental issue threatening forest health and wildfire safety.

Pandemic restrictions on gatherings and travel as well as restrictions on smoke levels in communities grappling with COVID-19 infections have leveled a major hit on prescribed burning plans in Jackson County to reduce wildfire starts and intensity while prepping forestlands for dealing with climate change.

Federal forest crews and contract workers have lagged behind on the burning of piles of smaller trees and brush aimed at ridding forests of those potential fuels.

But another wildfire prevention tool that has suffered amid the COVID-19 reality is underburning — the practice of using controlled flames to creep across the forest floor to burn out grasses and brush.

Underburning follows the expensive cutting, stacking and burning of piles and is necessary to stay on track before the smaller trees and brush regenerate to a point where more expensive cutting, stacking and pile burning is needed again, experts say.

“We’re really falling behind on underburning,” says Capt. Chris Chambers of Ashland Fire-Rescue, one of the partners in the Ashland Forest Resiliency and Stewardship Project, a decade-long effort to reduce wildfires and improve forest health in the volatile Ashland watershed.

“It’s slowly losing the investment we’re making to restore our forests to a more safe and sustainable state,” Chambers says. “But like everything else lost to COVID, you can’t get it back.”

Controlled burns can reduce the size and intensity of future wildfires, and help create healthier forest stands better equipped to withstand hotter, drier conditions expected in coming decades from climate change.

While burn bosses have been willing to cut back on burning to reduce smoke impacts on residents threatened by COVID, the backlogs are getting serious.

Assessments by AFR members and others in the Rogue River basin conclude the various state, federal and private landowners need to use controlled fire on approximately 50,000 acres a year within a 4.5 million-acre footprint to gain an upper hand on wildfire reduction and forest health.

But crews this year struggled to get to 1,200 acres in that footprint, largely due to COVID.

“We clearly have a bottleneck,” says Darren Borgias from The Nature Conservancy, which joins Ashland Fire-Rescue, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and the nonprofit Lomakatsi Forest Restoration Project in spearheading AFR.

The COVID restrictions have been two-fold.

In spring, Lomakatsi crews trying to do underburning were side-swiped by social distancing restrictions. Burn crews couldn’t drive into the Ashland watershed together, and firefighting crews on standby to monitor burns had to be distanced.

“That made burning a whole different animal,” Lomakatsi Executive Director Marko Bey says.

Lately it has been smoke restrictions based on Jackson County’s designation as an area of extreme COVID risk.

Begun in 2009, AFR seeks to reduce potential wildfire intensity while protecting Ashland’s drinking water, improving forest health and other goals, including protecting or enhancing habitat used by northern spotted owls, Pacific fishers and other threatened species.

AFR suspended controlled burns March 14 in the Ashland watershed to help reduce any woodsmoke impacts on area residents beginning to cope with COVID-19.

The move caused AFR to fall about 2,000 acres short of its target of burning 3,200 acres of piled woody debris last fall, winter and early spring. Also, AFR was able to burn just 90 acres of about 500 acres of lands tapped for underburning.

Jackson County is trying to get a waiver to allow burning, but officials believe the county needs a downgrading in COVID risk to get some of that underburning happening during the key spring burn season.

State officials so far have based risk levels on new COVID cases and deaths. Not reducing the county’s risk levels threatens a further burning backlog that, over time, could allow smaller trees and brush to rejuvenate.

That could lead to a point where underburning would not be viable and crews would have to go back to square one and start expensive cutting and stacking for pile burning yet again.

“If Jackson County doesn’t get back to a lower level, we’re really shooting ourselves in the foot,” Chambers says.

“Every year we don’t get those burns done, the investment degrades,” Chamber says. “Mask up, everybody. We need to have a better burn season.”

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

New Year 2021 concept with hourglass falling sand taking the shape of a 2021
Crews work at a controlled burn in the Ashland watershed. COVID-19 restrictions have hampered efforts to clear forests of flammable fuels this year, yet another impact of the pandemic. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune