By Marko Bey for the Tidings
The solstice has passed and the new year is just days away. Snow blankets the mountain tops. Holiday lights and garland hang above the streets of downtown Ashland.
With the arrival of winter, you’re probably not thinking about fire — unless it’s to throw another log on the hearth while you sit back and embrace the holiday spirit with friends and family.
For Lomakatsi and our partners, however, fire is a year-round affair. From controlled burning fall through spring, to wildfires in the summer, fire is at the center of our operational universe.
Winter brings ideal conditions for controlled pile burns, as rain saturates the forest and piles can be ignited safely with low danger of fire creeping away. Pile burning is an efficient method of managing materials — also called fuels — generated from restorative thinning operations, with the goals of reducing wildfire risk, improving forest health and enhancing wildlife habitat.
The Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project, a partnership between the city of Ashland, Lomakatsi, The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service, has been conducting controlled pile burns across federal and private lands in and around the Ashland Watershed for over 10 years. We work closely with the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to secure funding and engage private landowners.
“Wildfire is the biggest threat from climate change in our area, and controlled burning is one of our best tools to adapt to the predicted increase in summer wildfire activity,” said Chris Chambers, Wildfire Division chief with Ashland Fire and Rescue. “If we can tolerate occasional smoke during the winter months, we can help ensure our community is safer in the future.”
You’ve probably seen plumes of smoke from these operations rising up from the Ashland Watershed over the past month. While it might seem simple from afar, controlled burning is a complex process.
On any given winter day at Lomakatsi, Aaron Nauth, our restoration operations director, is in close coordination with our AFR partners, Oregon Department of Forestry and local fire districts, monitoring weather and assessing conditions outlined in detailed controlled burn plans developed by federal agencies and AFR. Once weather conditions appear favorable, clearance to burn is requested from the ODF smoke management team in Salem.
As we wait for final smoke clearance, Lomakatsi Restoration Operations Supervisor John Cymore brings our crew managers into the loop to ensure all personnel, vehicles and equipment are ready to go.
Implementation is equally a group effort. To achieve as much controlled burning as possible in a limited window, Lomakatsi subcontracts other experienced local forestry companies, including Grayback Forestry, JD Forestry and GE Forestry.
“We’ve been working with Lomakatsi since 2009,” said Sean Hendrix, Grayback’s base manager and veteran prescribed fire specialist. “Because of the collaborative approach over the past 10 years, and all the great partners involved, we’re treating more ground, reducing more fuels, and getting more public buy-in for prescribed burning that needs to happen.”
The day of an operation begins before the sun comes up, when teams meet to discuss the burn plan and head into the forest. There are often a cadre of crews from multiple forestry outfits, in different locations, sometimes totaling over 100 people at a time implementing controlled burns here.
This November, a time when we’d usually be well into our controlled burning season, was mostly dry, so we have some catching up to do. Still, this fall Lomakatsi and Grayback crews, led by Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, were able to burn piles on 458 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in our municipal watershed — much over just the past few weeks. In addition, Lomakatsi crews burned piles on 338 acres of private land in and around the Ashland Watershed. At around 40-100 piles per acre, that’s a lot of work.
Lomakatsi provides an ecological lens in collaboration with the professional fire management staff of the RRSNF, Siskiyou Mountain Ranger District and other partners to ensure the operations protect the things we care about — old-growth trees, designated habitat piles, and even some dead tree snags that we leave intact because of their benefits to wildlife.
This collaborative approach has allowed AFR and our partners to greatly increase the pace and scale of restoration, making Ashland and the surrounding areas more resilient to wildfire. Last year AFR treated 1,200 acres, bringing our total to 12,000 acres treated since 2010.
And while Ashland is a central focus for Lomakatsi, we’re taking this model and putting beneficial fire on the ground throughout Oregon and Northern California this winter — most recently in partnership with tribal communities in Upper Klamath Basin and Sacramento River Watershed.
This work is day in and day out all winter. We’re grateful for all the people and partnerships who are working together to implement a holistic approach that helps to restore ecosystems and safeguard our communities in Ashland and across the region.