Prescribed fire can help prevent destructive wildfire
By Alexi Lovechio
Now that the winter rains and cooler weather have set in, it is safe to say that the wildfire season has officially come to an end in the Klamath-Siskiyou.
The Ashland foothills are now covered with a light dusting of snow and frost. It’s the time of year when you may notice small columns of smoke in the Ashland watershed on a cold wet morning, or maybe you’re receiving non-emergency prescribed burn notifications on your phone. You may ask yourself, “What is prescribed burning? What’s with the smoke in the watershed?”
Prescribed fires are also known as controlled burns. This is the practice of intentionally setting fire by an expert team under identified weather conditions to restore fire-dependent ecosystems. A goal of using prescribed fire is to remove fine fuels in a forest such as dead grass, fallen tree branches, and thick undergrowth.
By removing the fine fuels, a prescribed fire can help prevent a destructive wildfire because there is less material to burn and carry flames into the tree’s crown. Fire also rejuvenates a forest. It returns nutrients to the soil and creates habitat for wildlife. After a fire, the additional sunlight and open space in a forest can help young trees and other plants start to grow.
Native tribes have used cultural fire for millenia, and while cultural burns and prescribed fire can have similar results, they are not the same thing. Cultural fire is sacred to many tribes across the planet and is used to cultivate specific species and conditions. For more information about tribal fire in the Klamath Mountains, check out the Karuk Tribe website.
Fire suppression efforts have grown over the last century, making prescribed fire an important ecological tool. Historically, smaller fires occurred in forests throughout the Klamath-Siskiyou at regular intervals. When these fires are suppressed — and when cultural fires were banned — flammable materials accumulate, and forests become more crowded with small trees and underbrush. Prescribed fire seeks to accomplish the benefits that regular fires historically provided while preventing the fires from burning out of control and threatening our communities.
The Ashland community is contiguous with the foothills surrounding the valley. Many people live in the wildland-urban interface, a zone of transition from forests to urban development. Prescribed fire is one way to prepare the forests around our community for the upcoming wildfire season. The more controlled burns taking place now during the cool wet months, the more prepared our community and forests will be during the hot and dry wildfire season.
Living in a fire-prone area can be scary. We have witnessed destructive wildfires that have left our communities changed forever. The good news is there are actions we can take to prepare our communities for it. Wildfire is natural and inevitable; we can’t avoid it, but we can learn to thrive with fire. We can learn from Indigenous communities who have been working with fire from time immemorial. We can use prescribed fire as a way to manage and prepare our forests and keep dangerous flames away from our homes and communities.
To learn more and stay informed about the prescribed fires happening in the Ashland watershed, check out the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project (AFR.) AFR is a team of forest and fire professionals designed to reduce the risk of severe wildfire in the watershed, and to protect water quality, older forests, wildlife, people, property, and quality of life.
To continue learning about fire in the Klamath-Siskiyou, check out KS Wild’s newly released podcast, One Foot in the Black, which explores the root causes and solutions to living with wildfire in the era of climate change. The podcast tells the story of fire in the West — how the landscape has been shaped by fire, how climate change is remaking the rules, and how our future of living with fire is tied to the past.
KS Wild Side appears every month and features a staff member from KS Wild, a regional conservation organization based in Ashland. Alexi Lovechio is the Forest and Climate Coordinator for KS Wild and works to connect communities with educational and practical wildfire resources to help build a fire-smart community in the Klamath-Siskiyou. For more information go to www.kswild.org