Wake up and smell the smoke

It's late Wednesday as I fire up the computer, and the sky through my office window is bright blue, clear, pretty as an autumn sky can get. Mt. Ashland crowns my view, so crisp I see the edge of the bowl and the bright white sphere at the top. There are enough days like this that I don't always notice them. I notice this one. Today it's easy to be conscious that the sky at this moment could instead be the color of dirt, blotchy and dark, wrapping my house so thickly that I wouldn't be able to see my neighbor's fence 20 feet away. If I ventured outside to make sure it was still there without masking my nose and mouth, I might come back in hacking for air. And if then I went to the faucet for cold water to clear my throat, it could be that nothing would come out, not now, not next week, not, perhaps, for months.

That's what today could have been like if the fire that broke out Monday near Siskiyou Boulevard and Tolman Creek had originated one mile further to the west. There are a few reasons the fire burned for hours rather than days or weeks. Start with a pool of firefighters who are skilled, well-prepared and mobile. The rapid deployment of planes filled with chemicals helped, too. But what probably mattered more is: This fire didn't have much fuel. South Ashland near the highway is a mix of grasslands, sparse hardwood groves and scattered conifers, most too healthy and green to burn very well. An epic wildfire needs brisk winds, low humidity and enough fuel to build and sustain intense heat. Monday's conditions included only the first two.

Anyone who's started a campfire understands. What we first build with paper, dead leaves, pine needles, bits of bark and twigs seems tame and controlled. It's only after we pile on thick slabs of dry wood, after the flames wrap around them and start radiating from within, that we feel fire's wild primal force. Multiply that a million fold and you have the epic sky-darkening blazes that periodically burn the state of Jefferson, with the period getting shorter as climate changes.

If you've hiked, biked or driven the network of roads above and to the flanks of Lithia Park, you've seen serious fuel, those stretches where darkness seems to fall a few feet behind the roadside trees. Much of Ashland's watershed is a dense tapestry of shrubs, fallen branches and spindly trees, dead or dying from want of sunlight and moisture, that could fuel a fire hotter and less containable than any we've seen. Some of it forms the edges of a bowl around Reeder Reservoir, our only potable source of municipal water. I'll let your imagination take it from there.

We've been talking about this for a long time. Now and then there's more than talk; at different times forest contractors, AmeriCorps workers and volunteers have thinned select acreage. But there's so much more to do than has been done. And as forest management issues go, this one has pretty broad agreement among informed folks on just what needs to be done. One bright sign is that some federal stimulus dollars are targeted toward fuel reduction in Northwest forests, with the bonus that some timber workers will be able to fire up their saws for the first time in years.

Tenacious folks have been working on all this for a while. They could use your help. If Monday's fire focused your thinking about what's at stake, check out www.ashland.or.us/afr, or call the Lomakatsi Project at 488-0092.


There seems to be a rule for political leaders who have a decision challenged by citizens or the media: hunker down, defend what you did with the best rap you've got, and tough it out. Good decision or bad, the most important thing is not to look weak by backing down, because once opponents get the scent of your blood in the water, it's all over. This practice reached its purest form in a recent two-term presidency.

And it's exactly what our Mayor and Council did not do when their decision to hold an executive session to hear legal opinions on public nudity was challenged. When some of us said all their meetings should be public unless there's a clear and compelling reason otherwise, they mulled it over, decided they didn't have that kind of reason and opened the doors.

Which practice is smarter politics? Whichever we voters decide to support. If you see this the same way I do, find a way to thank a councilor or two for not confusing strength with stubbornness. Tell them you'll remember how well they listened.

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com.

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