Ashland Fire & Rescue Alarm Box: There are good fires and there are bad fires

We’ve experienced wildfire smoke, heavy at times, in Ashland in the past. You may have also seen smoke rising from the hills above town recently. So what’s the difference? The distinction lies in what fire is doing when smoke is in the air: good fire and bad fire.

Fire in our forest is nothing new and, in fact, it’s been commonplace as far back as the oldest tree in the watershed and that’s 600 years. According to research, fires burned for centuries in the Ashland watershed every other year, and mostly low flames that maintained the forest. Not that there weren’t big flames on occasion, but not on the scale we see today. That was good fire, and it largely went away as European settlement took place.

Today, 150 years of growth, coupled with accumulating limbs and logs and needles and leaves with no good fire, has left us with a forest three times as dense. This is a recipe for bad fire. Bad fire scorches soils, consumes centuries-old trees and threatens us and our quality of life. 

Since 1995, the city of Ashland has been working in earnest to get back to good fire on municipal forestland. Following suit, the U.S. Forest Service put forth the Ashland Forest Resiliency project in 2004 and, through a local partnership, nearly 4,000 acres of work toward putting good fire back to work is now complete. You’ve likely seen steps toward good fire on those controlled burn days when smoke billows above town as piles of forest debris are burned — debris created by thinning of 150 years of accumulated work that good fire hasn’t been able to do.

True good fire has been reintroduced on city forestlands in recent years in small areas — not through piles of debris, but carefully applied one narrow strip at a time across an area secured by firelines, trails or roads. This is an underburn, or good fire. Low flames consume accumulated debris and guide the future development of the forest. 

In the next two months there will be more good fire. We have 100 acres planned right below the White Rabbit trailhead that combines U.S. Forest Service land under the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project with city of Ashland forestland in one “burn unit.” More units are planned this season and, to keep up with growth and accumulation, we need to underburn nearly a thousand acres a year if weather conditions permit. That’s ambitious, but we need more good fire.

Smoke will be readily apparent during underburns. However, unlike summer wildfire, smoke from both underburns and debris piles is planned to move away from town and is monitored closely. Some smoke may drift into town during controlled burning, but nothing like summer wildfire smoke that blanketed the region in 2013, closing the Shakespeare Festival for four days with predictable economic loss. While we can’t do much about smoke from wildfires far away, good fire can keep local fires in check and mitigate impacts of bad fire on our health, safety, economy, and our precious water. 

Chris Chambers is the Forestry Division Chief for Ashland Fire & Rescue and can be reached at chamberc@ashland.or.us. Visit the AFR Project website at www.ashlandwatershed.org or on Facebook by searching Ashland Forest Resiliency. The Alarm Box, a column with local public safety information written by Ashland Fire & Rescue personnel, appears triweekly in the Tidings. Email topic suggestions to margueritte.hickman@ashland.or.us.

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