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No fire boss, no burns

The lingering federal government shutdown is threatening short- and long-term plans for controlled burning on federal forestlands in need of treatments to reduce the likelihood and intensities of future wildfires and the debilitating smoke they create.

The lack of fire-management staff on hand to sign off on prescribed burns means no such treatments on Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management lands are slated for burning this winter, which is the best time to remove fuels with the least smoke impacts to communities, officials said.

So far, the lack of on-hand “fire bosses” has not curbed burning in the Ashland watershed, where winds have been too high for burns planned on Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project lands in and around Ashland.

Thursday’s wind patterns were consistent with what could have been a burn day in the watershed’s higher elevations. But Darren Borgias of The Nature Conservancy, a partner in AFR along with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and the city of Ashland, said losing future burn windows to the shutdown could put much needed fuels-reduction work on the back burner short-term and could cause projects to miss the burn window altogether.

AFR still has about 1,300 acres remaining from 2,500 acres scheduled for controlled burns this winter.

“If the shutdown continues and starts to intersect ideal weather for burning, that would be cause for considerable concern,” Borgias said. “Burn days are precious.”

The shutdown also is delaying surveys and studies on several key future wildfire-reduction projects meant to take the positive aspects of AFR and apply them to large swaths of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, which is at risk for catastrophic wildfires like those that pummeled the Rogue Valley with smoke most of last summer.

Projects in the pipeline include the Stella Landscape Restoration Project, which eyes more than 25,000 acres for thinning and more than 10,500 acres of prescribed fire over a 61,000-acre footprint on Forest Service lands north of Prospect.

Another is the recently vetted project on about 52,300 acres of Forest Service and BLM lands in the upper Applegate watershed. That’s a project already four years in the making and has garnered widespread support.

These projects are designed to reduce the size and intensity of future fires, as well as create healthier forest stands better prepped to withstand hotter, drier conditions expected over coming decades of climate change.

“It is dangerous that we are taking a break from doing the good work of protecting communities from fire and the work in forests to make them more resilient,” said Joseph Vaile, executive director of the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

Under federal policies, controlled burns are planned out well in advance. Usually they are tentatively approved the day before the burn based on myriad weather conditions. Those include wind speeds and direction, with an eye toward conditions that will allow smoke to travel upward and away from communities.

The forest’s fire management officer, a.k.a. the fire boss, makes the final call on scene just before drip torches are applied.

No fire boss, no fire.

“They are not going to light a match and conduct a burn without Forest Service approval the day of (the burn) and at the site,” Borgias said.

However, contract crews such as the Ashland-based Lomakatsi Restoration Project are still allowed to cut small trees and brush for piling and future burning, because those projects follow written prescriptions already signed off by the Forest Service, said Capt. Chris Chambers of Ashland Fire & Rescue, which is an AFR partner.

Contract crews typically can burn 50 to 75 acres of previously cut, piled and dried brush and thinned tree stands a day, Chambers said.

“If we start losing days, those are acres of burn piles that will be there during fire season,” Chambers said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTwriterFreeman.

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