Ashland Fire & Rescue warns of intensified wildfire seasons

Ashland Fire & Rescue Fire Chief Ralph Sartain and Division Chief Chris Chambers speak to the Ashland City Council at its Aug. 2 business meeting. Screen capture from RVTV webcast
August 8, 2022

Even if carbon emissions stopped now, warming effects already ‘baked in’

By Stephen Floyd, Ashland.news

Ashland Fire & Rescue has warned of more intense fire seasons in years to come as local impacts of climate change become more apparent.

Division Chief Chris Chambers told the City Council Tuesday, Aug. 2, that coming fire seasons could see an increase in acres burned of between 200 and 400 percent, according to data analyzing wildfire risks in the Northwestern U.S.

Chambers said this increase in potential destruction appears to be inevitable and officials must take action to be prepared.

“I know it feels like there’s a lot of area burned out there right now, but kind of we’re just getting started down that path with what’s been baked into the system with climate change,” said Chambers. “And if we stopped emitting carbon tomorrow, this could continue for at least 50 years, because we have created that much inertia in the climate that it’s going to keep going. Needless to say, we have to be ready.”

Chambers spoke during a broader update by Ashland Fire & Rescue regarding the city fire season preparations. Fire Chief Ralph Sartain told the council his department is constantly monitoring fire activity in Southern Oregon and Northern California, including those currently burning in Siskiyou County, California, and near Crater Lake. 

“We will absolutely protect this community,” said Sartain “ We are monitoring it 24/7, 365.”

When commenting on specific actions the city is taking to prepare for upcoming and future fire seasons, Chambers described the Forest Lands Commission’s current efforts to update the Ashland Forest Plan. He said the plan has existed in some form since the 1990s and Ashland has historically been proactive in staying ahead of forest fires and climate change challenges.

Chambers said the commission has conducted a great deal of research into the latest science on wildland firefighting and climate change, including statistics about expected increases in areas burned during a season. 

He said they plan to hold a public comment period in late summer or early fall before making policy recommendations to the council before the end of 2022. Potential policy updates could impact the way Ashland allocates resources and prioritizes projects to manage wildfire risks.

Recent projects include the removal of numerous dead ponderosa pines from Lithia Park and surrounding properties in 2021. The trees had become infested by Western pine beetles, which Chambers said have proliferated in the dry and hot climate persisting in Southern Oregon, and called the infestations “a canary in the coal mine” for continued climate disasters.

He also said the city has taken wildfire prevention measures on 200 acres of Ashland’s 1,100 acres of managed forestland, including the thinning of brush and removal of small trees. This work was done in collaboration with Ashland Parks & Recreation, which manages some of the properties designated as forest land.

But some fire prevention progress has been slower than expected, such as controlled burns of local forestland. Chambers said his department tries to average around 1,000 acres of burned land every year, but so far in 2022 has been able to burn 198 acres.

He said this shortfall has been due to multiple factors, such as high winds or dry and hot weather preventing safe burns, and a decision by the U.S. Forest Service in May to cease controlled burns following a wildfire that month started by a preventative burn in New Mexico which turned into the state’s largest recorded wildfire. 

But despite inherent risks, Chambers said controlled burns need to remain a priority in wildfire prevention.

“We live in a fire-adapted forest and it needs fire to thrive and to keep fuel levels low,” he said.

When looking ahead at the future of wildfire preparedness, Chambers said Ashland is part of a “cutting edge” program developed by The Rocky Mountain Research Station. Called Potential Operational Delineations (POD), Chambers said the name isn’t much to get excited about but the effectiveness of the program has shown great potential.

POD was developed as a holistic wildfire prevention method, promoting collaboration between disaster managers and community stakeholders, prioritizing the specific roles each person or group will play during a wildfire response. Chambers said compartmentalizing wildfire response like this allows agencies like his to develop multiple backups to primary response plans.

“We can create an initial attack strategy, and we can have contingency plans already built in,” he said. “It’s a great tool for prioritizing work in the future.”

Even before POD, Ashland Fire & Rescue was already partnering with the community, such as working with the Ashland Chamber of Commerce to develop Smokewise Ashland, a section of the city’s website with regular updates on air quality during wildfire season. He said this partnership is likely to continue, in addition to other coordinated efforts to provide wildfire preparedness information to the public.

Ashland Fire & Rescue is also connecting with citizen volunteers through its Wildfire Risk Assessment Program, which trains community members to assist with a large backlog of wildfire risk inspections requests at local homes. He said six volunteers were trained last fall and already 174 inspections have been conducted, but there is still a three-month backlog and a new round of volunteers are scheduled for training this fall.

Email Ashland.news reporter Stephen Floyd at sfloydmedia@gmail.com.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.
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