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Ashland wants smoke rule exemption to do more prescribed burns

Ashland wants to ramp up its prescribed burning to reduce wildfire danger, but it needs an exemption from smoke standards to carry out more work.

In the past under Oregon rules, prescribed burns would be shut down if ground-level smoke drifted into towns.

That zero-tolerance policy toward smoke loosened in 2019, allowing for moderate levels of ground-level smoke to sometimes enter towns for short periods of time. Since that standard can still be hard to reach, communities can apply for exemptions to carry out more burning.

Ashland is nestled into a 15,000-acre forested watershed that stretches into the hills and up to Mount Ashland. For years, the city has worked with partners to thin trees and brush and burn flammable fuels in the watershed.

“We can’t burn fast enough to get ahead of the issue,” said Ashland Fire & Rescue Battalion Chief Chris Chambers.

Ashland fell even farther behind this year after COVID-19 concerns shut down spring burning. Work resumed in November after the end of a disastrous fire season that included the September Almeda fire that burned from Ashland to the outskirts of Medford.

That fire started in lower Ashland, not uphill in the more forested parts of town.

This week, Ashland officials briefed Jackson County commissioners on the city’s plan to request further smoke exemptions from state rules. They’ll be back later to ask the commissioners to approve the plan, a necessary step along the way to winning state approval.

If Ashland’s prescribed burning repeatedly created too much ground-level smoke, the city could have its state exemption revoked.

Ashland has to develop a Community Response Plan for Smoke to protect residents from possible impacts from more smoke.

It’s already bought 500 air purifiers for residents, plus eight high-volume purifiers that can be set up in large spaces to create smoke refuge areas, Chambers said.

The smoke plan has to address smoke-vulnerable people, including older adults, children, pregnant women and residents with heart, lung and respiratory diseases.

Thinning and prescribed burning can help reduce the threat from wildfires that produce out-of-control smoke.

Chambers looked back through Ashland’s data and found the worst prescribed burn smoke event put smoke into town for two hours with an air quality index rating of 153. That put the smoke in the unhealthy category.

The smoke dissipated enough that Medford was still in the good category, Chambers said.

In recent years, smoke levels have spiked into the unhealthy, very unhealthy and hazardous zones in the Rogue Valley because of wildfires — often for prolonged periods of time.

“Summers are the problem,” Chambers said.

During the past three years from summer into fall, the area has had 143 days with moderate or worse air quality, he said.

During the past three years from late fall into early summer, the area has seen 31 days with moderate or worse air quality. Of those days, five or less were on prescribed burn days, Chambers said.

Ventilation and smoke forecasts dictate whether burn managers get the go-ahead to burn on any particular day.

Outside of the fire season, poor air quality days are usually linked to background pollution like wood stoves, car exhaust and other pollution that gets trapped in the valley, Chamber said.

Jackson County Commissioner Bob Strosser said the need for more prescribed burning is fairly compelling.

Commissioner Colleen Roberts said Ashland appears to be too focused on burning. She said the city should explore other options, including harvesting biomass from the forest.

Chambers said the city has tried other methods. Hauling woody debris to Biomass One in White City, for example, isn’t economically feasible because of the transportation costs.

Ashland has done some logging of commercial-size trees that can be sold to mills.

Before the modern era of fire suppression, the Ashland Watershed was regularly swept by wildfires. It had a more open forest with large, fire-resilient Ponderosa pines, said Ashland Mayor John Stromberg.

It became overgrown with spindly Douglas fir trees and other flammable vegetation. The goal is to return the watershed to a more fire-resilient condition, he said.

“We’re figuring out ways to live with nature but also protect ourselves from what nature can do to us,” Stromberg said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.