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Ashland Watershed controlled burns likely to continue until fire season is called

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Sean Hendrix, burn boss with Grayback Forestry, helps to ignite a control burn in the Ashland Watershed on Tuesday.

Controlled burns in the Ashland Watershed that have put up sizable smoke columns for more than a week will likely continue until the Oregon Department of Forestry declares fire season in southwest Oregon, officials said.

But forestry crews are making good progress on the work, all intended to protect the city of Ashland and the Ashland Watershed from wildfires. Crews will take a quick pause if the weekend’s wet forecast materializes, but hope to resume.

“Although it’s been worrying for folks down in the valley, me included, up at elevation, it’s been a lot cooler and a lot moister, and it’s actually perfect conditions for getting these underburns done,” said Chris Chambers, Ashland Fire & Rescue Forestry Division chief.

The controlled burns, called underburns, target accumulated brush on the forest floor. Pile burns, intended to eliminate stacks of piled brush, tree limbs and other woody debris, are conducted during moister, cooler weather when flames don’t typically spread beyond the pile. Conditions for the best underburns are drier.

Crews burn in sections, or strips, with drip torches. Small areas 5 or 6 feet wide are set ablaze, the resulting flames carrying over to a fire line held by firefighters with water on site.

“You just keep doing that on down through the particular area or unit,” Chambers said.

The resulting smoke can look ominous, but on the ground, underburn flames are around 1 to 2 feet tall.

“It’s going to take a while,” Chambers said. “We’ve had to really get the landscape repaired to accept this kind of fire, because it has really changed a lot in 150 years. A lot of undergrowth, a lot of dense trees.”

Recently, crews have been burning at multiple sites. Because of this, crews have to exercise even more caution than usual because of the amount of smoke generated, said U.S. Forest Service public affairs specialist Virginia Gibbons.

“That is requiring, maybe, to go a little bit slower than we might otherwise,” Gibbons said. “Because we have to consider the smoke that’s going into the airshed from two burns, rather than just one.”

One ongoing operation was on private land about 2.5 miles west of Ashland, Chambers said. A total of 450 acres is slated for burning at the location, with crews burning at spots between 2,500 and 4,000 feet, Chambers said.

“(It’s) a very likely spot for wildfire to come from if it’s going to burn into town and/or into the Ashland Creek Watershed and the municipal water supply,” Chambers said. “So it’s a really key strategic piece of ground.”

Winds frequently move up the Rogue Valley into the Siskiyou Mountains, Chambers added, leaving Ashland particularly vulnerable from the west and northwest. A 1959 human-caused wildfire showed this vulnerability. The blaze started in the Jackson Hot Springs area and burned south toward Lithia Park, growing to 5,000 acres before crews contained it.

“We’ve seen it before, and other wildfires follow that same pattern,” Chambers said. “What we’re basically doing is drawing a line in the sand right across that direction of spread that the fire would come from, and really building a black line, as firefighters call it, around the city. Easier to think of it as the moat around the castle.”

A 20-person hand crew from Grayback Forestry is handling burn operations at the site. Activity could continue into next year if work is not completed before fire season begins.

Grayback Forestry and Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest crews conducted a days-long burn operation around the Four Corners area, then later moved on to the Winburn Ridge area.

“Ridges tend to be locations, when we do have fires, where we’re successful with suppression,” Gibbons said. “And so we purposefully lay out our burn units on a map with the intention of reducing the fuels along those critical ridge lines.”

Smoke management became a chore one day when evening winds did not materialize as hoped, leading to some smoke in town, but officials are pleased with operations overall.

But there’s plenty to do, and the urgency to get it done is heightened following 2020’s destructive Almeda blaze that destroyed countless structures, displaced thousands, and left three dead in the nearby towns of Talent and Phoenix.

“Part of every phone call that I have and every conversation with a citizen is, ‘What are we doing to get ready this year because of Almeda?’” Chambers said. “And we’ve really amped it up, not only in what we’re doing in the area surrounding town, but within the community. We’ve got a lot of blackberries out of riparian areas that are near neighborhoods, homes, really just wicks that are going to let fire burn right up into the community.”

“Looking at what happened in Almeda, we really don’t have a choice. We have to do this,” Chambers added. “We won’t (get) everything in year one, but we’ll keep chipping away at it, and hopefully within five years, we can significantly reduce the wildfire risk in Ashland.”

Similar brush-clearing projects will be ongoing throughout Southern Oregon the next couple months, with $1.8 million in state dollars funding brush and hazard tree removal efforts in Jackson, Josephine, Curry, Klamath and Lake counties. Jackson County projects slated for the effort include fuel and hazard tree removal efforts in and around Ashland, Gold Hill, Rogue River and Wimer.

Ashland Fire & Rescue and Ashland’s Wildfire Safety Commission also recently launched a four-month educational campaign intended to get individual homes and landscapes ready for fire season.

Reach Mail Tribune web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanpfeil.