Living laboratory

Droppings on the ground showed that wild turkeys have been nibbling on new sprouts of green growing beneath trees that were charred by the Siskiyou Fire on Ashland's outskirts.

Chris Chambers, forest resources specialist for Ashland Fire & Rescue, and Marty Main, the city's forestry consultant, bent over to identify the droppings during a Friday afternoon tour of the area burned by the 188-acre fire in September.

In the fire area, 80 acres burned that had been treated to remove flammable small diameter trees and brush — providing a living laboratory to test the effectiveness of wildfire fuel hazard reduction work.

The city of Ashland has spent nearly $1 million, much of that in the form of federal grants, to treat more than 2,000 acres in the forested hills in and around town, Chambers said.

Treatment areas inside the Siskiyou Fire zone showed blackened stumps of small trees mixed into the forest where crews worked to thin out little trees and brush from 2006 to 2008. Most of the areas that were thinned burned at low to medium intensity, compared to untreated areas that suffered from extreme intensity fire, Chambers said.

Charring on the tree trunks in much of the treated area showed that flames had licked up about four to six feet, compared to other areas where flames flared up to 50 feet high. Though many Douglas fir trees had browned needles, they still had green in their tops.

"There's not significant scorch up here, which means the canopy was not affected," Chambers said.

Those trees will have a chance of surviving, according to Main.

"There's a pretty good chance these guys will come back," he said.

Before the fire, crews took the trees they had thinned, piled them and burned them. Oddly, those burn pile areas, which still bear a few charred bits of wood, are seeing a surge of green sprouts.

Chambers said he can't explain the extra growth there, except to surmise that the small fires released nutrients back into the soil.

In other areas that were treated before the fire, the news wasn't as good. Black marks on tree trunks showed flames went up about 20 feet.

Main said it's common for wildfire to vary in its intensity.

There, the trees showed more damage in their canopies.

But Main said that even though the canopies are brown, at least the conifers have their needles left. Those needles have been dropping to the blackened forest floor, where they help to protect the soil.

Humans won't really find out how many trees survived the Siskiyou Fire until spring, when trees put out their new greenery, Chambers said.

In two untreated areas where the fire burned at its hottest, the fir trunks are completely black and all their needles burned away, leaving none to fall to the ground.

Previous fuels reduction work, the efforts of firefighters and a shift in the wind kept the Siskiyou Fire on the east side of upper Tolman Creek Road, where it burned in the Tolman Creek Watershed and destroyed only one home, said Chambers and Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief John Karns.

The boundary of the Ashland Creek Watershed, source of the city's water supply, is only one mile from the fire, Chambers said.

The burned area will also serve as a laboratory for whether wildfire will lead to erosion on the loose, sandy soils that predominate in both the Tolman Creek Watershed and the Ashland Watershed.

Chambers, Main and a U.S. Forest Service worker put down six sets of matts in the Siskiyou Fire zone that they are monitoring to see how much eroded soil collects on the material.

"We can apply that to the Ashland Watershed and see how much sedimentation would go into Reeder Reservoir," Chambers said.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or

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