Thinning safeguards watershed

In scientific jargon, the Ashland watershed is known as a "fire-adapted terrain," which means fires always will be a threat.

But with major thinning efforts over the last decade, local officials say they are confident that any fires will be smaller, easier to handle and less likely to cause catastrophic damage.

After the shock of the big regional forest fires at the start of the decade, the city of Ashland and the U.S. Forest Service set up a program to thin trees and reduce brushy understory — to replicate the job regular fires would accomplish.

They now estimate the job is about 10 percent done, most of it in the woodland-urban interface where fire can do the most harm.

"It's at a better point than it's ever been in the past, with the most acres thinned, ever," said Ashland Forest Resource Specialist Chris Chambers. "There's still a long way to go and it's mostly on Forest Service land."

The Forest Service manages 90 percent of the city watershed, said District Ranger Linda Duffy, noting that the USFS has completed its first phase — cutting, piling and burning on more than 1,100 acres in and near the interface zone.

Working in collaboration with the city, the USFS here will soon announce its Ashland Fire Resiliency Project to further reduce severity of fires and protect 7,000 to 8,000 acres in the watershed from erosion and the loss of water-retaining capacity that often follows fires.

The Environmental Impact Statement on that project is near completion. It will be reviewed publicly by the City Council July 14, then enter the public "objection period."

Lomakatsi, a forest restoration group hired by the city to thin forest on private lands in the watershed, has thinned almost 1,000 acres in the watershed from Tolman Creek to Wright's Creek, said Marko Bey, director of operations for the group. Lomakatsi, with about 30 workers, operates mostly on federal and state funding.

"A lot of good work has been done," said Bey. "It's way improved since 2000. The community is way more fire safe."

As for the upcoming fire year, Chambers said it's shaping up to be comparatively mild because the area has had a lot of precipitation and snowpack.

"It's moist and we need it," he said.

"We're miles ahead compared to 10 years ago, even though it's a small percentage (of thinned forestland), and the part up by Mount Ashland will never be thinned out," Chambers added.

In coming years, the Forest Service and city will do more burns of rapidly growing understory in thinned areas, a practice that keeps forests "resilient and intact," according to fire officials.

Brush grows back thick enough to need burning within five to seven years, Chambers said. This is done in winter, away from residential areas.

Duffy said forest overstory is kept intact to deny sunlight and slow understory growth.

Many newcomers who buy homes in the interface zone don't understand that there is still going to be fire danger, even if it's greatly reduced by thinning, said Bey.

"There's no guarantee there's not going to be a fire," Bey said. "We live in a fire-adapted landscape."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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