Ashland announces $445,000 grant will boost fire management effort
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
Ashland Fire & Rescue will be able to double its capacity for reducing forest fuels through controlled burns in the coming year and a half, thanks to state funding publicly announced today, Feb. 14.
The controlled burns will be funded by a $445,500 grant awarded to the city of Ashland and Ashland Forest Resiliency (AFR) Stewardship Project by the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF). AFR is a cooperative endeavor between the U.S. Forest Service, the city of Ashland, The Nature Conservancy, and the Lomakatsi Restoration Project. The group works to reduce the risk of severe wildfire in the watershed and to protect water quality, wildlife, people, and property.
The funding is part of state Senate Bill 762, passed last June and signed into law by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, which dedicates $220 million over two years statewide to wildfire planning and response capacity.
Chris Chambers, wildfire division chief for Ashland Fire & Rescue, served on the Gov. Brown’s Wildfire Council that helped formulate the bill, passage of which was led by state Sen. Jeff Golden of Ashland.
Chambers said the funds will help the AFR project increase its burning capacity this winter and into June 2023 as it prepares for ever-increasingly dangerous fire seasons in years to come, due partly to the impact of climate change.
“The grant will allow us to do more work and at a faster pace,” Chambers told Ashland.news on Friday, which will allow AFR to keep “increasing our footprint of controlled burns.”
“We’re really excited to have this added funding to help us double down on burning, a crucial piece of our work over the past decade that simply has to accelerate if we hope to limit the intensity of future wildfires that are a given in our warm climate,” Chambers said in a news release announcing the grant.
Grant funds are earmarked for 485 acres of controlled underburning or prescribed burns, including Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest land, city and Parks and Recreation Commission land, and private lands, in the city’s watershed.
The state grant will also fund the creation of 123 acres of new fuel breaks on private land inside the city limits and adjacent to the Ashland watershed.
“To see something so substantial come from that effort, in terms of funding, from the Legislature was incredible,” Chambers said of serving on the statewide council. “It was right on the heels of the Almeda Fire and all of the other fires in Oregon … it was obvious that some actions needed to happen.”
A two-day controlled burn finished up Friday, burning a total of 55 acres of forest land in what Chambers calls “underburning.”
Controlled burns now to lessen chance of out–of-control fires later
The burns are a proactive way to prevent future fires as well as a way to use a forest management tool that indigenous tribes long used.
“Restoring the once frequent role of intentionally set fires is one way of honoring the Shasta, Takelma, and Athabaskan people who stewarded the forest of our area for millennia,” the news release says, “before colonization and fire suppression policy led to overly dense and flammable forest conditions.”
“We can actually reintroduce the role of fire in the forest in a way that’s productive, healthy and safe,” Chambers said, adding, “It’s under very controlled conditions — There’s fire lines and everybody out there is a certified wildland firefighter.”
Chambers said when and if future larger wildfires interact with areas that have had fuel reduction treatments, such as these controlled burns, the outcome is far more positive than in forests without this kind of management.
With three major wildfires affecting Ashland in the last 11 years, Chambers said, he believes the probability of another wildfire in Ashland is not only quite possible, he anticipates it will happen.
“We’re really … just rolling the dice,” Chambers said. “The conditions are going to come along when the heat and an ignition in a place that’s going to be really hard to get in front of.”
That could be lightning in the hills above Ashland or from a wildfire spreading to the area from miles away.
“We know fire can get big enough and travel across large areas that we should be thinking about fuels and forest management, not only for the Ashland watershed and our community, but as far away as we possibly can that we have any kind of influence over what happens,” he said.
A major focal point of protecting the forested Ashland watershed lies also in that it is the primary source of drinking water for city of Ashland residents. Protecting it is a key element of Chambers’ job.
“If we had a devastating wildfire there, it would have significant impacts on the quality of our drinking water, and the associated costs to filter the water and to mitigate the impacts of a severe fire in the watershed,” Chambers said.
Ashland Fire & Rescue has a plan in place for evacuation and firefighting tactics, as well as how the department would work in coordination with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) on bringing in mutual aid resources from across the Rogue Valley in the event of a fire such as the Almeda Fire on Sept. 8, 2020.
“That coordination is really important when we do have a fire,” he said.
Looking ahead to fire season
As Chambers and the Ashland Fire & Rescue prepare for the summer, they’re hoping for more moisture during the next few months.
“It’s really hard to say at this point how bad the summer is going to be,” he said. “Certainly the weather that we’re having in January and February does not bode well for the summer, but we could still go through a wet spring and be fine going into the fire season. I’ve not given up hope yet, (I’m) keeping my fingers crossed.”
Wildfires in the Rogue Valley in 2021 weren’t a major issue, even though there were smoke impacts from the massive, neighboring Bootleg Fire in eastern Klamath County, and fires in northern California.
The extreme heat in the Rogue Valley last June predisposed the entire landscape to dry out, however, prompting continued concerns.
“Heat in and of itself doesn’t necessarily create a bad fire season, it certainly sets the table for one,” he said.
Windy days and lightning storms are the biggest factors in major wildfires. Wind is foremost.
“It can be 115 degrees and not windy and we can be OK,” he said, “but when it gets to 20, 30, 40-mile-an-hour winds, then things become really scary and difficult.”
He emphasized that prevention is key when it comes to mitigating wildfires, and some of that comes down to controlled burns. Other proactive measures involve changes in housing codes as well as assessing current residences for fire dangers.
“We’ll never have enough fire engines and firefighters to save everybody’s house in a severe wildfire,” Chambers said. “What we do know about these fires is that they are entirely preventable.”