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Ashland clears hurdle to getting smoke rule exemption

The city of Ashland has cleared one hurdle on its way to getting an exemption from state smoke restrictions that limit its ability to do prescribed burns to reduce fuels in the wildfire-prone Ashland watershed.

In late December the Jackson County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to declare that Ashland did coordinate with the county on a community smoke plan. Ashland has to show it coordinated as part of its effort to win a smoke rule exemption from the state.

The state has tight smoke restrictions that say ground-level smoke from a prescribed burn can’t impact a community for an hour or longer.

Ashland wants a state exemption that allows for up to three smoke intrusions into town during a five-year period.

Although the commissioners said Ashland did coordinate with the county over the smoke issue by meeting to discuss the matter, commissioners expressed concerns about the volume of burning in the forested Ashland watershed.

“While the board understands that prescribed burning is, at times, a necessary means of fuels reduction, the amount of prescribed burning which necessitates the request for an exemption from the one-hour average smoke intrusion threshold would be reduced if Ashland were to focus its fuels reduction efforts on mechanical thinning and commercial harvest,” commissioners said in comments sent to the state.

Ashland has logged and sold some trees that are large enough to be commercially valuable. But much of the multi-year Ashland Forest Resiliency and Stewardship Project has focused on cutting and burning brush and small trees while leaving behind larger, more fire-resistant trees.

Ashland has struggled to find an economic use for that small woody debris. The winding, narrow road through the watershed isn’t suited to big trucks, and hauling wood to market is expensive, according to Ashland Fire & Rescue Battalion Chief Chris Chambers.

If Ashland is granted an exemption to state smoke restrictions, the county commissioners asked the state to consider revoking that exemption if, even once, smoke intrudes into other communities in the Rogue Valley and impacts the county’s ability to meet air quality regulations.

Ashland officials don’t believe ground-level smoke from burns in the Ashland watershed will drift to other towns.

Chambers looked back through Ashland’s data and found the worst prescribed burn smoke event put smoke into town for two hours with an air quality index of 153. That put the smoke in the unhealthy category.

The smoke dissipated enough that Medford was still in the good category, Chambers said.

Meanwhile, smoke from wildfires has caused far more severe impacts to local air quality, especially over the last several years.

Ashland has fallen far behind on burning woody debris that has been stacked and piled. It also can’t keep up with underburning, in which low-intensity fire is allowed to creep along the forest floor to consume vegetation, Chambers said.

Crews have had to observe social distancing during the COVID-19 epidemic, and Ashland suspended spring burning to avoid putting smoke into the air that could impact people struggling with the respiratory disease.

Burning resumed in the fall with the close of the wildfire season and the return of rainy weather.

Burning is allowed only when the weather forecast predicts good ventilation.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.