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A controlled burn rips through underbrush south of Hyatt Lake on private property during a prescribed burn. Daily Tidings / File Photo

Alarm Box: The wildfire paradox — more smoke equals less fire

Recent efforts to secure two heavy lift firefighting helicopters next fire season is not without merit, but expecting two helicopters, or any number of added suppression resources, to fix the smoke and fire problem is short-sighted. Fuels have built up for the better part of 150 years, and climate change is a growing tsunami wave that is already inundating our wildfire environment with longer, hotter summers.

While politicians and governments can, and should, be doing their part to find funding and enable ecologically-informed forest management at a broad scale, it will take time to fix our forest and smoke woes.

Fire historian Stephen J. Pyne, a professor at Arizona State University and guest lecturer at Southern Oregon University in 2016, has studied wildfire all over the world. After decades of looking at thousands of years of humans’ relationship with fire, his conclusion about the strategy of fire exclusion (suppression) is this:

It (exclusion) has been tried in places where fire thrives naturally or in fire-sustained cultural landscapes, and in such settings, it fails. It may take a few years or a few decades, but the ecosystem will deteriorate, and the fuels will increase, and the paradoxical outcome is a worsening of the fire threat.

Yes, we could use more resources to protect our communities and keep some fires from growing to megafire proportions, but we must do this with the understanding that we’re kicking the can down the road, postponing the inevitable fire that will burn with more fuel under hotter, windier and drier conditions: this is the wildfire paradox. That’s an unfair burden to place on our firefighters, present and future. Without a regional, cohesive effort to reduce the fuel load in our forests while thinning the forest of unnaturally dense conditions, we can’t expect a better outcome in the years to come by solely increasing fire suppression capability.

Fortunately for Ashland, we’ve been doing exactly that for many years on U.S. Forest Service, city and private forestlands. To that end, we have 3,500 acres of fuels piled neatly for burning during cool, wet conditions with favorable wind to move much of the smoke away from town. Where burns are close to town and, most important, to protect our community, transient smoke may impact localized areas of town from time to time. We’re aware and share in the concerns that more smoke (even if we don’t breathe it) is a burden after two awful summers of smoke.

If there was another way to protect our community and our water supply without creating smoke, we’d be far down that road — and we’ve tried alternatives. Thinning forests and using fire proactively is a proven antidote to out-of-control summer wildfires, creating opportunities for firefighters to protect communities and critical natural resources, while keeping fires smaller. So please excuse our smoke.

To find out more about our controlled burning program, see ashlandwatershed.org/controlledburns and sign up for burn day notifications.

And what about a regional, cohesive effort to reduce fuels, create healthier forests, and hundreds of new jobs? It’s called the Rogue Basin Strategy (see sofrc.org).

Chris Chambers is forest division chief for Ashland Fire & Rescue. The Alarm Box, a column with local public safety information, appears triweekly in the Tidings.

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