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‘The work doesn’t stop’

Photo by Allayana Darrow | Restoration technician manager Ryan Puckett monitors proper cutting and thinning, procedural safety, slash pile arrangement and overall quality control in the Upper Applegate Watershed project area.
Forest thinning resumes in Applegate Valley after long fire season

ASHLAND — For some crews, the end of fire season means getting right back to work. After more than 90 days assigned to fight fires across the West, including the Bootleg fire and Devil’s Knob Complex, Lomakatsi Restoration Project crews returned to thinning overly dense forests surrounding Rogue Valley communities.

Restoration crew manager Braulio Maya Cortes said that after his longest fire season — working days and nights on five wildfires in temperatures often exceeding 100 degrees — “we look forward to being home so we can continue making our communities safer and forests more resilient, in a proactive way.”

Seasonal thinning led by Lomakatsi began Oct. 18 as part of a broader forest restoration effort by Rogue Forest Partners in the 52,000-acre Upper Applegate Watershed, incorporating federal and private lands. The group of four nonprofits and six agencies started work on 6,000 acres in high priority project areas, funded by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.

Rogue Forest Partners focus on forest health, wildlife habitat enhancement, water resource protection and wildfire risk reduction around homes, roads and strategic defensive ridgelines.

This autumn, Lomakatsi crews plan to treat about 185 acres on the Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District in the Applegate Valley, focusing on removing surface and ladder fuels that, if ignited, encourage wildfire to spread into the forest canopy.

“The crews are tuned in to leaving that hardwood diversity,” said Lomakatsi Executive Director Marko Bey. “It’s a fuels project, but it’s also forest health and trying to promote the stand to a more diverse structural condition.”

An additional 1,300 acres of planned thinning necessitates tree removal, scheduled to begin in 2022, followed by slash piling for controlled burning in the spring or next fall. Plans include understory prescribed burns in the Upper Applegate Watershed this season, to help maintain forest treatments and provide ecological benefits.

Building on the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project — backed by 11 years of monitoring and documentation — members of the Rogue Forest Partners published the Rogue Basin Cohesive Forest Restoration Strategy, leveraging the latest forest restoration science to create a “comprehensive, integrated” approach to regional forest management.

The AFR project began on federal land, focused on restoring healthy large trees and returning fire to the system.

“We made the case for a strategic vision of how to treat that landscape, realizing it wasn’t enough just to do the work on the Forest Service land,” said Kerry Metlen, forest ecologist with The Nature Conservancy. “Then we were able to start leveraging lots of different partners to start meaningfully addressing what is a very real ecological departure — a problem with how that system is functioning.”

In the AFR project area, potential for severe fire dropped, space opened up for fire suppression efforts when necessary, and opportunities grew for prescribed fire operations to improve forest health, he said.

The Rogue Basin Cohesive Forest Restoration Strategy takes the AFR model and applies core tools to conversations about co-investing in shared regional objectives: protecting communities, reducing wildfire risk, conserving sensitive wildlife species and adapting forests to climate change, Metlen said.

“Our capacity is growing for planning, implementation, monitoring, outreach and engagement,” he said.

A coalition of 40 forest scientists, including Metlen, co-wrote a series of articles published in the scientific journal Ecological Applications in September, synthesizing more than 1,000 publications centered on “the most rigorous forest and wildfire science available.”

The articles detail more than a century of documented changes in forest structure, fire regimes and climate, and recommendations for large-scale forest restoration and community resilience, said Bill Kuhn, regional ecologist for the Rogue-River Siskiyou National Forest and co-author on the Rogue Basin Strategy.

Prior to 2015, federal agencies treated less than 10% of a given planning area, but to truly influence how fire behaves on the landscape, treatments should cover about one-third of the total area, Metlen said.

The complete forest restoration approach attempts to increase tree size, promote fire- and drought-tolerant species, reduce forest density to support the health of remaining trees, and respond effectively to forest disturbances — inevitably, the purpose is to return forests to conditions more akin to a time when Indigenous people stewarded the land using fire to live safely on the landscape, he said.

“The science is clear — extensive ecological thinning and intentional fire use is needed to transform our relationship with fire from reactive to proactive,” Metlen said. “This unprecedented science synthesis documents the overwhelming evidence that forest health in the West has declined due to fire exclusion, and that active stewardship is needed to restore balance and help forests and communities adapt future climates.”

According to Lomakatsi, the synthesis complements aboriginal fire knowledge and Indigenous stewardship practices. Three members of tribal nations in the area serve on the Rogue Forest Partners Implementation Review Team, which is tasked with “ensuring forest restoration treatments reflect a range of community values.”

Rob Marshall, fire management officer for the Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District, has tracked the evolution of local restoration work over 34 fire seasons, including the relatively recent shift from treating a few patchwork acres at a time to “more concentrated acres in an area,” around communities with fuel profiles causing more volatile fire behavior in recent years, like in the Upper Applegate Watershed project, he said. The scale of work is trending up.

“Our hope is that we can modify it down under the right conditions, so that we can go be successful in initial attack and also have a more resilient stand if we do have a fire there, and be able to put my people in there without fear of them getting in harm's way,” Marshall said.

“You just have to look up here in the hills, you can see all of the dead trees that are dying out, it’s a perfect example of what’s happening,” he said from the Star Ranger Station Oct. 28. “Those trees shouldn’t have been here and shouldn’t have been able to develop as long as they have been.”

Growing beyond the way of piecemeal forest management tailored to resource interest by acre, the all-lands approach took hold because no one agency or nonprofit has the funding to complete the work alone, said Terry Fairbanks, executive director of the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative. The second key reason: fire knows no boundaries, demanding collaboration for effective forest management.

When inspecting a treated forest unit, Lomakatsi restoration technician manager Ryan Puckett looks for proper cutting and thinning (the right type and amount of trees), procedural safety, slash pile arrangement and overall quality control. Some of the units are packed with 120-160 piles per acre depending on the density — managed according to a unit-specific burn plan.

“When we come back to burn, where those piles are placed, if they’re on the old stumps, if they’re on the old logs, that can cause real headaches for the people that are burning, as opposed to having a clean burn where it’s going to go out fairly quickly,” Puckett said. “If it starts burning in the big stumps in there, it could go for days, weeks, it could go into the ground and come back after a snow even.”

With fire seasons starting earlier, crews “hit the ground running,” then return from fire season and immediately enter post-fire recovery, Bey said. Fuels work and burning ramp up through the off seasons, then they’re back on fires.

“The work doesn’t stop now. It’s seamless for our workforce,” Bey said.

The work crosses jurisdictions, incorporates numerous partners and leverages different pots of money to share stewardship, develop common goals, improve forest resilience and set the stage for beneficial prescribed fire, he said.

“As our crews are weary of coming off of the wildfire, so is the community weary of the smoke,” said Lomakatsi tribal partnerships director Belinda Brown. “Community: hang with us here, you’re going to get some smoke now even though you’re so weary from the smoke in the air from all the wildfires. This is how we’re going to prevent that. Fire is medicine for the land.”