by Morgan Rothborne for the Mail Tribune
Forest crews thinned more trees and burned more debris piles than usual last winter and spring, but more would be better, fire managers say
The Ashland Forest Resiliency Project burned more debris piles and conducted more controlled burns in the forests around Ashland this past off-season than it has in recent years.
But more is needed, fire managers say.
“We have fewer burn piles remaining than any other year going into fire season. Just 352 acres remain, compared to over 2,000 acres in many past years,” according to Ashland’s 2021-22 controlled burn report.
“It’s a significant accomplishment not to have as many burn piles oversummering,” Ashland Wildfire Division Chief Chris Chambers said.
The Ashland Forest Resiliency Project, in conjunction with partners Lomakatsi, the Nature Conservancy and Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, along with their primary contractor, Grayback Forestry, eliminated 1,374 acres of debris piles since October of last year.
Chambers said each burn acre represents from 20 to 100 burn piles. This year’s work eliminated close to 17,000 burn piles, greatly reducing the amount of fuel available for forest fires.
The resiliency project worked with Oregon State University to model data collected on fuel reduction and to pinpoint which parts of the landscape need the most attention — dividing forestland into sections based on roads and ridge lines, defining risk factors and the unique conditions of each area, then tailoring forest management plans to those individual realities.
“We go out before the burn, collect data on how much fuel there is, put that information in a (computer) model, do the burn and put that data in, then do a comparison,” Chambers said.
For this year’s burns, Grayback used drones with infrared cameras to keep workers safer and make the work more precise.
Normally, workers go in after a controlled burn and walk the forest in a grid formation, dragging their hands through the dirt looking for hot spots.
Chambers said the work is dangerous. A worker could fall into a hot stump hole concealed by debris. Sometimes trees fall as crews walk through.
Grayback reduced the risk this year by flying drones equipped with infrared cameras through burn areas, letting the images point crews to hot spots.
But fewer burn piles left through the summer, smarter technology and even increased fire data was not enough to completely satisfy Chambers, who wants to see more underburning.
This year the project treated 198 acres with underburns, which isn’t enough, Chambers said.
“If we want to keep up with the growth and more closely emulate the natural fire cycle that the landscape experienced for thousands of years before fire suppression, we should be burning up to 1,300 acres per year,” Chambers said. “Anything over 1,000 acres would be successful.”
Chambers said fire was used by Indigenous people to manage the land, and it is one of the best ways to prevent intense wildfires. But to allow fire to move through the forest in a safe, controlled way, the forests have to be made healthy enough.
“We’ve removed ladder fuels and underground fuel to create healthy forests that can effectively accept fire,” Chambers said. “We’ve really ramped up that program.”
Chambers said there are natural cycles of fire in different parts of the landscape. In the highest elevations, fires typically appear every 45 to 50 years. Lower elevations, those that most directly threaten the cities of the Rogue Valley, typically experience fire every 10 years.
Underburning can replicate these cycles and prevent the landscape from becoming overburdened with fuel. Fuel reduction, even the kind done for burn piles like felling trees, is good for the forests.
“It reduces competition, builds resiliency and vigor and gives trees a better chance of surviving fires and drought,” Chambers said.
Both climate and economics have kept the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project from reaching ideal levels of underburning, and entering fire season with burn piles remaining.
Burn piles must be burned in the off season, but windows are limited. If conditions are too wet, too windy or there are too many dry fuels, it can’t be done.
Autumn once was a good time to burn, but drought and long fire seasons often close the door during those months.
“Having the more year-round fire season really puts stress on the workforce,” Chambers said. “Pre-burning is one of the best tools in the toolbox, but we don’t have enough people to do the burns because it’s those same people working on the fires.”
Now that fire season is in effect, AFR urges those who see smoke to call 911.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.