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‘Good start to winter’ for next fire season, water supply

A controlled burn rips through underbrush south of Hyatt Lake. Mail Tribune / File Photo

ASHLAND — A combination of heavy snows and vigilant forest management could spell good news for the Rogue Valley’s next fire season.

Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project crews entered the fall with about 1,300 acres of pile burning to complete before fire season — now reduced to 553 after a “successful” fall burn season, said Ashland Fire & Rescue Wildfire Division Chief Chris Chambers.

A wet October eased the impact on drought-stressed trees, and a thick snowpack will only help, he said. On Wednesday, Mount Ashland reported 98 inches of snowfall so far this season.

“We haven’t had a good start to winter like this in a long time,” Chambers said.

Fire seasons progress partly based on how quickly various elevations dry out in spring and early summer — without healthy snowpack higher up, elevations tend to dry out almost simultaneously from bottom to top, he said.

A thick spring snowpack could ward off another early fire season. If the snow sticks around, the community’s water supply benefits from having a snowpack last into August and September by easing reliance on the Talent-Ashland-Phoenix intertie and Talent Irrigation District, he said.

“That just takes a portion of the landscape off the table for a while, and the trees will retain that moisture as the snow melts into the summer months,” Chambers said. “If we continue this rate of accumulation, that’s what we could expect: A later fire season, especially at upper elevations.”

Staff from the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, Lomakatsi Restoration Project and Grayback Forestry have cleared 800 acres of fuel piles (about 40,000 piles) in an all-lands approach since October.

For pile burning, crews collect cut brush, dead material and small trees into a pile, then wait for sufficient moisture and cool weather to burn them to prevent fire from spreading.

“Once we go through that whole cycle of cutting brush and trees, burning the burn piles, we go back in to restore the role of frequent, natural fire, which was part of our forests for thousands and thousands of years,” Chambers said, explaining the purpose of underburning.

“Putting that role of frequent, low-intensity fire back into our ecosystem is a really important piece of what we do. It’s the final phase of all of our work in the AFR project and it will continue in perpetuity.”

Indigenous tribes of the area used fire as a management tool for millennia, and by analyzing fire scars on older trees, the historically frequent role of fire is evident, Chambers said. Natural fire was suppressed for 150 years, resulting in overly dense forests and “uncharacteristically severe” wildfires in summer months, he said.

In 2021, Lomakatsi and partners completed about 2,260 acres of prescribed fire treatments on federal and private land, including 470 acres of underburning and 1,480 acres of pile burning through AFR in the Ashland watershed and nearby private lands, according to a Lomakatsi Facebook post Monday.

Lomakatsi also used prescribed fire in the Green Springs west of Ashland, Chiloquin Trust Lands, Colestin Valley and Scott River Watershed in Northern California, in collaboration with federal, tribal and local partners.

Opportunities to underburn in the fall are typically rare because certain conditions must line up — a narrow window that’s not too wet, dry or hot, to avoid detrimental impacts on the forest, Chambers said. Smoke management also plays a part, he said, as fall days rarely encourage smoke to move up and away from town.

The AFR project completed underburning across 55 acres this fall, managed by U.S. Forest Service burn bosses. Last spring was the best underburn season, with just over 400 acres completed, he said.

Forest managers want to see fire return to treated areas once every decade, Chambers said. To stay on target with a natural “fire return interval” across the 13,000 acres on which AFR has worked, crews need to complete more than 1,000 acres of underburning each year.

“We still have to get at least twice as much underburning done as we have ever, just to stay current with the fuel accumulation and regrowth on the landscape,” Chambers said. “The more that we get done, the better equipped we’ll be each fire season to protect our homes and our community and infrastructure, as well as fire interacting in the Ashland watershed in a more productive way.”

Recent research about how fire behaves in the summer when it meets fuels treatments shows that — even facing extreme fires — treatments make a difference in protecting communities and lessening detrimental impacts on ecosystems and wildlife habitat, he said.

Chambers highlighted Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest staff for continually monitoring conditions in the watershed and identifying the sweet-spot window for underburning this fall, allowing crews to get to work in safe conditions. Spring underburning typically starts in late April.

The remaining 553 fuel piles will be burned once road access improves and snow melts off the piles, Chambers said. Depending on weather conditions, crews may return to pile burning around March or April, unless earlier melting and drying allows for a sooner start. Once snow melts off, the piles take about a week to dry enough to burn, he said.

“The piles do have a little covering built into them to keep the core of the pile dry to make them burn more efficiently and have less emissions — even with that, they could get totally swamped out by snow,” Chambers said. “We need to have only six inches or less of snow on each pile to be able to light them and have them actually consume the fuel that we’re trying to get rid of.”

In the fall, crews mostly burned high-elevation piles in the watershed, he said. About 200 acres of low-elevation piles closer to the city have yet to be burned. Heavy November fog dampened the piles too much to burn.

Around March, if needed, managers will assess the value of plowing to access some exposed piles in the middle of the watershed, which can hold snow as late as May, Chambers said.