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Fire — in small doses — can be good

On a crisp fall morning Friday, a group of strangers gathered around an Ashland Fire & Rescue truck, lacing up hiking boots, securing trekking poles and hoping to get answers to questions that buzzed around everyone’s ears this past summer — why was the smoke so bad? What’s being done about it?

They set out along the lower Red Queen Trail in the Ashland watershed on a fire ecology hike led by representatives from the Ashland Forest Resiliency (AFR) Project to find out what’s being done.

At the trailhead, Chris Chambers, Forest Division chief, passed around what appeared to be a nondescript chunk of tree. But on closer inspection, years dating back to the 1500s were marked on the smooth side where the rings were visible. Each year marked denoted a time the tree had burned.

Chambers explained that in this beautiful section of the world, fire is healthy to the landscape. It’s not only healthy, but greatly needed. If the forest had remained undeveloped by humans, fire would roll through about every eight years, burning away the grasses and dense underbrush, but more or less avoiding the canopies of native trees. The landscape would be singed for some time, but it would quickly bounce back and be more protected from the next fire.

But when settlers decided to live in the forest, they brought their fear of fire with them. Indigenous tribes had used fires to their advantage for thousands of years to cultivate favorable food and resources, but in the early 1900s an instinctual reaction to put them out swept the nation, according to Chambers.

Because the Ashland watershed landscape has been without fire for so long, the environment is not properly prepared for it. This is happening in many forests these days and it’s the cause for larger fires, including megafires — fires that burn 100,000 acres or more at a time.

In order to reintroduce healthy fire into the watershed, AFR works to consolidate these flammable materials into piles which they then burn in the spring when it’s safe to do so. AFR also implements controlled ground burning, along with other tasks such as data collection and community outreach. The goal is to essentially eradicate the danger of a massive fire emergency in Ashland. By returning the forest to a condition it should naturally be in, it will hopefully help protect the city should a fire find its way into the watershed.

Slowly but surely the group straggled eagerly up the trail, led by Chambers, forest and research management specialist Marty Main and AFR community engagement coordinator Sarah Jones. Community members sprinkled in the mix included three Ashland forest lands commissioners, a controlled burn specialist, and Alec Dickinson, communications manager for Lomakatsi, which is an AFR partner.

As the group climbed the hillside, stops were made at where some of the controlled burns have happened over the years. To the untrained eye, the areas didn’t appear to have been recently burned. Grasses and new and old trees grew with plenty of open space between them. One would need a keen eye to distinguish the charred stumps from any other fallen log or pile of sticks.

In some locations pictures were passed around showing what that area looked like before, during and slightly after the burn. The differences were dramatic.

It sounds simple enough, but the implications are complicated.

“We don’t want severe soil impacts in a geologically sensitive area,” Chambers said.

A lot of work goes into each burn. Data has to be collected before, during and after burns of the moisture in the soil, weather pattern around that time, and much more.

Currently, state law dictates that no smoke can waft into a populated area from a controlled burn. If it does, it’s considered an “intrusion.”

However, Chambers, along with other city officials and advocates of controlled burning in the state, have petitioned for more smoke allowance. The days that can be spent burning are limited already due to weather conditions — add in the state restrictions and the time to burn is severely decreased. Chambers said there are 3,500 acres of burn piles just waiting to be burned that have accumulated from past years because there isn’t enough flexibility to burn.

“Even loosening that a little bit would help us so much,” Chambers said.

As the group climbed back down the trail, the sun peeked from behind the hill. Forestlands commissioner Pricila Franco said she’s proud of the work being done in Ashland.

“When my friends and family talk about smoke and wanting to leave Ashland, I ask ‘where would you go?’ There’s fires all over the West,” Franco said. “In my opinion, this is the best place to be. The Ashland Fire Resiliency partnership is doing a great job.”

The next scheduled fire ecology hike is from 9 a.m. to noon Friday, Oct. 26. Register at bit.ly/2AioEoP by 4 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24.

To submit comments on loosening smoke rules to allow for more controlled burns, write to the Oregon Board of Forestry re: smoke rulemaking at Board Support Office; 2600 State St.; Salem OR 97310; and/or Environmental Quality Commission; 700 NE Multnomah St., Suite 600; Portland OR 97232-4100.

The lower Red Queen Trail has been designated as the official fire ecology hike. Occasional guided tours are offered, including tours for school classes in April and May. To schedule a class tour, contact Jones at sara.jones@ashland.or.us.

New informational placards explaining the stewardship practice will be placed by the end of November which will allow self-guided tours as well.

Contact Daily Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

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