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Could we celebrate smoke?

After a downright reasonable summer and early fall where you got to do all the things you’d been yearning to do over the past two summers, we’re still waiting for the real rain to return.

Many of you are waiting for rain in order to stop watering plants in mid-November, but some of us are wishing for rain so we can make smoke. We’re secretly waiting and wishing to see puffs of smoke in the hills, and columns rising and gently wafting away in the breeze.

But why keep it a secret? What if the return of controlled burn season created just as much happy chatter in the super market aisle as the relatively smoke-free summer did this year? What if people danced in the streets at the sight of smoke?

This is partly in jest, but if we ask ourselves what it means to adapt to our already changing climate, could we find a way to celebrate despite the dire forecasts for our planet? Perhaps we must if we’re going to adapt our spirits as well as our environs and lifestyles to this monumental task.

Controlled, or prescribed, burns are an essential ingredient to a safe and tolerable future in our tree carpeted region. Scientists and fire historians (they exist!) agree that there isn’t a future without smoke. It’s off the table.

If you can begrudgingly accept that, you get to a place where smoke is a choice. We can choose to burn it ourselves, or we can wait for it to burn on its own. When we choose to burn, we choose the conditions that give smoke the best chance to move away from people, and we choose the kind of fire that’s right for the land. The Shasta and Takelma tribes who lived here for thousands of years figured this out long ago. But us newbies are having a hard time learning to live with fire.

Even if we are dancing in the streets about burning, we have to tolerate smoke in our community at times.

This smoke won’t stay long, but due to a century and a half without indigenous people using good fire and a century of putting out even the most benign fires, we have a serious backlog to deal with. Under new rules this year in Oregon we can have periodic light smoke in town as a result of controlled burns for wildfire safety and forest health reasons. For each of the past 10 years we have created more burn piles than we’re allowed to burn. That’s unwanted and hazardous fuel sitting in the forest during the summer fire season and that’s unacceptable.

Though burn smoke won’t be as dense and long lasting as summer smoke has been, you still need to take precautions when smoke is in the air.

Here’s what to do:

First, sign up for notifications about burning around Ashland by texting the word WATERSHED to the number 888777. Burns can affect roads and trails above town, so if you’re a walker, hiker, or biker you need this. You can also register for email notifications at www.ashlandwatershed.org

Second, know what to do when smoke is in the air. Go to www.smokewiseashland.org to find ways to cope with smoke. Having a proper HVAC filter, stand-alone HEPA purifier, and/or N95 respirator is important for the entire year.

Last, know when to avoid exposure. If you’re sensitive to smoke due to health reasons or have young children, know when to stay in spaces with clean air and avoid outdoor exposure. Know where to find the Air Quality Index (AQI) reading and what to do at each colored level. The Ashland AQI is posted on the smokewiseashland.org website.

Thank you for your patience as this critical work continues in order to make our community and watershed a better place to be.

Chris Chambers is the Ashland Fire & Rescue Forest Division Chief. The Alarm Box, a column with local public safety information, appears triweekly in the Tidings.

Ashland Fire & Rescue