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Firefighters in training ignite a controlled burn south of Hyatt Lake. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

Firefighters converge in Ashland for training

Even as Ashland Mayor John Stromberg prepares to attend a White House Roundtable next week on using fire to fight fire through the nationally recognized Ashland Forest Resiliency Partnership, controlled burns are underway throughout the Southern Oregon region.

The smoke in the hillsides is evident, but underneath and less evident are firefighters from around the country and world learning more about best practices in setting fires to enhance the long-term health of forests and prevent wildfires that can gobble up thousands of acres and homes in their wake.

“In 2009, a fire in the Siskiyou (range) was a wake-up call," says Darren Borgias, ecologist and program manager with The Nature Conservancy. "It raised awareness, which grows depending on how close fires are to towns and communities.”

Borgias is part of the Ashland Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (known as TREX), which brings together people from a wide range of different organizations to exchange knowledge and experience, he says.

There are firefighters from the United Kingdom, Spain and Mexico, as well as from across the country, all learning and working in Southern Oregon for two weeks and participating in controlled burns. Borgias says the training is based in Ashland because of the AFR partnership and its recognition of using fire as a tool.

“It’s new to this region but fire learning networks do this often around the country and world,” he says.

The program is sponsored by the Fire Learning Network and run by The Nature Conservancy.

Ashland has become somewhat of a ground zero in this training and initiative. States such as Florida and California have been using controlled burns for years now, but in many places the idea of intentionally setting fires in the forest is relatively new. The process in Ashland began as a dialogue in the late '90s and became the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project roughly a decade later. Deliberately burning underbrush became part of the playbook for conservation and fire suppression in Ashland.

AFR started by burning 50 acres of underbrush in the Ashland watershed and this year will increase it to 500 acres, according to Chris Chambers, forest division chief for Ashland Fire & Rescue.

“With an eye toward forest habitat, a severe fire would have a severe impact on a watershed,” Chambers says. Controlled burns prevent severe wildfires by picking the best times based on wind and moisture, building fire breaks and back burns to prevent them from getting out of control.

Studying patterns of wildfires in the Ashland watershed since the 1400s indicates that nature creates fires about every eight years, according to Chambers.

“Thinning through fire brings more access to light and moisture for the larger and growing trees,” says Borgias.

“The community benefits from reduced risk.”

Borgias says there are about 50 involved in the training from the federal Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, local fire teams and The Nature Conservancy. This specific type of training has been going on for roughly a decade, according to Borgias, but it’s new to this area. “There’s a growing awareness here of working with fire. It’s viewed as a tool for diminishing the severity of wildfires,” says Borgias.

Controlled burns are expected to go through June. The training exchange is here to assist with that process.

The Ashland Forest Resiliency partnership received an award of $5.64 million from the U.S. Forest Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Council and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board to get the controlled burns and other forest management practices underway. The partnership is being hailed as a national model and is one of the reasons Stromberg, who worked to push it forward, is part of the White House Roundtable. He leaves Monday for the nation's capital.

Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at akinsj@sou.edu and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.

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