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Pile burning on target this winter

Chris Chambers, forestry division chief for Ashland Fire & Rescue, walks through a controlled burn last January in the Ashland Watershed. The Ashland Forest Resiliency Project is on target to burn all of its piles this winter for the first time since 2010. [Mail Tribune / file photo]

Progress on prescribed burns in the Ashland Forest Resiliency project this season is good, and it could set the stage for better burns in the future, said Ashland Wildfire Division Chief Chris Chambers.

“We hope to get all of our piles, and I think we’ve got a really good chance at doing that. That would be, roughly speaking, 245 acres left to complete, and last year in just piles, we burned 1,176 acres. To get the 245 remaining is not a question at all,” Chambers said.

If AFR achieves that goal this year, it would be the first time since 2010 that the project has burned through all of its piles in the controlled burn season, he explained.

Chambers reveled in the recent wet weather and its promise to make for a productive burn season. When asked how the piles get burned when it’s wet, he laughed.

“That’s a trick. In part, the piles have a little piece of polyethylene built into them, and it keeps the core of the pile dry,” he said. “There’s definitely an art to pile burning.”

Fuels-reduction crews build the piles with materials such as excess branches and ladder fuels or young saplings that would congest the forest. Chambers referred to this work as a kind of layered haircut for the watershed.

The piles are built with the expectation that they’ll be burned in wet weather, sometime between late fall and early spring.

The crews know there’s an anatomy to a burn pile, a good way to build one and a bad way, he said. They try to gather dead and dry materials for the bottom layer. Then come branches, and about three quarters of the way up, the polyethylene layer goes in holding down most of the pile, keeping it dry and flammable. Larger limbs and the stumps of small recently removed trees often are piled on to keep the whole thing pinned.

The polyethylene is not plastic, Chambers said. It burns cleaner with less emissions, and is different in its fundamental composition. Plus, the whole pile burns cleaner the faster and the hotter it burns.

Completed piles wait for a year, maybe two or three, sometimes as long as five years to be burned, he explained. The workforce has to be available in the right weather conditions to burn, and with hundreds of piles to go through, some usually are left behind for next year.

Aligning the available workforce with the weather is even more vital for broadcast burning and has become increasingly difficult to do in recent years, he explained.

“This is just the pile burn phase, which is basically making up time from all this accumulated fuel over the past 150 years of active fire-suppression tactics and cessation of Native American burning,” he said.

Broadcast burning — or good fire as it’s often called — was used by Native Americans to manage the health of the forests, Chambers said. By using smaller fires broadcast through the underbrush, the forest is limited in the kinds of fuels that pull fire along and fan larger flames.

“As long as the forest keeps accumulating fuel, we have to keep using fire. This is a fire-adapted ecosystem used to frequent fire. It’s just been missing for a long time. People should expect to see smoke into the future even when we get done with these piles,” he said.

Pile burning is easier. It costs less: $150 to $250 per acre as opposed to broadcast burning’s price tag of $800 to $900 per acre. Larger numbers of acres burned at once are more economical, he said, and at the moment burn projects aren’t limited by funds.

Last year’s Senate Bill 762 handed down millions of dollars throughout Oregon for increased attention to the state’s risk for megafires, including fuels reduction.

AFR received a grant from this bill through Oregon Department of Forestry Landscape Resiliency Program for $445,000. Those dollars are earmarked for prescribed burning on 300 acres of ODF land within the Ashland Forest Resiliency project, as well as 100 acres of city forestlands and 40 acres of private land.

There’s also funding available for building fuelbreaks and monitoring and reporting on the work.

When last year’s prescribed burns were cut off early after a controlled burn in New Mexico escaped its bounds and became the 300,000-acre Hermits Peak Fire, AFR wasn’t able to use up its allotted Forest Service funds for burning. But that money still is available for burn operations, he said.

For all the available funds, the weather and the manpower hasn’t been there for broadcast burns.

“If we're trying to get ahead of the game on the prevention side, we want to be really actively out there in October once the chainsaw restrictions are lifted. October and November can be really productive months. But still the fire crews are out doing mop-up and finishing up fires,” he said.

This year, there wasn’t much of a division between the scalding hot and dry fire season and the soaking cold weather, closing off the ideal burn window.

Fire season always has occasionally stretched into fall, but in recent years, extreme drought has made it harder to hit that ideal burn window with available chainsaws.

But Chambers said he’s hopeful for the second burn window of the year — late February — the moment winter starts to look like spring and everything is dry enough to burn but not so dry the burn can’t be controlled.

AFR isn’t the only one burning in the hills outside Ashland. A partner in the AFR project but a nonprofit with its own slate of projects, Lomakatsi also has already treated hundreds of acres throughout the south end of the valley.

“To date, we have completed controlled pile burning on approximately 430 acres on private land within the West Bear All-Lands Restoration project, and also at the Buckhorn Springs Resort property near Ashland. This includes 296 acres in the Anderson Creek area of Talent,” according to information provided by Lomakatsi.

The nonprofit aims to burn 1,700 acres more this season, as conditions allow. That number includes areas in AFR, on private lands within the West Bear project stretching from the edge of AFR to Jacksonville, with additional projects on Bureau of Land Management lands near Williams in the Applegate.

Lomakatsi also is announcing a new project — Prescription for Safety — fuels reduction and pile burning along Sterling Creek Road, Griffin Lane and Highway 238. The project aims to keep neighboring communities safer and evacuation lines clear. The work will begin in January, as weather conditions allow, according to Lomakatsi.

There is not yet any single way to know which plume of smoke came from whom. During the recent wind event, Chambers said he received a complaint from a resident upset to see a burn operation. But it wasn’t AFR, and a quick check with his colleagues at Lomakatsi confirmed it wasn’t them.

It was a private corporation, conducting a burn on its own land near Wagner Creek, Chambers said.

To stay up to date on when AFR is burning, a text alert service is available. Sign up at ashland.or.us/Page.asp?NavID=17389.

A cooperative group of nonprofits, Rogue Forest Partners, is providing the text alert system for burns related to them, including Lomakatsi. To sign up, text RFPUPDATE to 855-594-2793 or see rogueforestpartners.org/signup/.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.