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Photo: Andy Nelson/Special to the Christian Science Monitor.
On a hiking trail in Ashland, Oregon, signs of a controlled burn. Says Brian Hendrix, who works for an outreach program that helps homeowners protect their properties from wildfires, “We try to help residents see that their own safety is linked to their neighbor’s safety.”

When Martin Kuz interviewed residents of Ashland, Oregon, for the Christian Science Monitor, he found that the shared determination to prevent wildfires tamped down ideological fires.

He reports, “A municipal water tank built into the forested hills above Ashland offers postcard views of the mountain valley town on clear days. This warm September morning is not, alas, such a day. Wildfires burning elsewhere in Oregon and to the south in California have blurred the blue skies, turning the city into a soup bowl of ash-gray smoke.

“Standing atop the storage tank, Chris Chambers points toward Hald Strawberry Park, visible through the haze about a half-mile away and encircled by homes. Drought has browned its grass and many of its pine and madrone trees. The parched land presents a fire threat to the town’s 21,000 residents – and, he explains, another chance to better protect them from the flames.

“ ‘I want to burn that whole thing. It’s an island of fuel,’ says Mr. Chambers, the wildfire division chief for the city fire department. … ‘There’s a choice: We can burn the land on our terms, or we can let nature burn everything – and we won’t like the effects.’

“The prospects for his plan appear bright in a town that over the past quarter century has emerged as a leading light in the American West for its sustained, communitywide approach to wildfire prevention. Since the late 1990s, acceptance among Ashland’s residents of the need for collective vigilance has grown in tandem with the number, scale, and intensity of infernos across the region. …

“ ‘Calling these huge fires of recent years natural disasters – they’re very much not natural disasters,’ says Mr. Chambers, who joined the fire department in 2002. …

‘We have to think of these fires and climate change as human-made disasters and realize we can unmake them. And, really, we have to if we want to live in the West.’

“This summer delivered more proof of that charred reality. … Propelled by ferocious winds, the Almeda Fire gutted the neighboring towns of Talent and Phoenix, leveling 2,500 homes. The calamity brought into tragic focus the principle of shared responsibility that Mr. Chambers and other fire safety officials promote as they seek to lower wildfire danger and enhance forest health.

“The emphasis on collaboration has drawn together the city, U.S. Forest Service, and conservation groups to restore the town’s watershed, a heavily forested area that slopes down from the 7,500-foot peak of Mount Ashland. The innovative initiative has enabled the partners to treat 13,000 acres of land through prescribed burning, selective logging, and brush clearing.

“Local officials have cultivated broad support in recent years to strengthen homebuilding and landscaping standards to improve wildfire safety. Fire Adapted Ashland, an education and outreach program, works with homeowners to safeguard properties and distributes small grants to individuals and neighborhood groups to replace flammable vegetation and trim trees.

“The culture of solidarity in the former timber town, now best known for hosting the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, has attracted fire safety officials from other Western states and as far away as England and Spain. They learn that an informal policy to persuade rather than dictate guides the city’s strategy. …

“The bitter struggle over clear-cutting and spotted owl habitat in Oregon, Washington, and California resulted in tight logging restrictions on federal lands as popular sentiment shifted toward saving old-growth forest. 

“In the ensuing decades, the ban on most timber operations – along with the enduring practice of extinguishing wildfires as quickly as possible – has deepened the crisis of ailing forests. The added impact of climate change and drought has burdened Western states with an estimated 6.3 billion standing dead trees. The competition for water and sunlight in clogged forests stunts the growth of young trees and diminishes the capacity of older, more fire-resistant trees to withstand flames and disease.

“ ‘The bias for a lot of the public is that any tree is a good tree,’ [Kit] Colbenson says. ‘But what you end up with is a forest that has more fuel and is more susceptible to big fires.’ …

“Forest Service and city officials raised the idea of restoring the 15,000-acre watershed through brush removal, controlled burning, and limited tree thinning to reduce fire danger and preserve the town’s sole water source at the time.

“The initial discussions elicited angry opposition from critics who suspected a Forest Service plot to revert to clear-cutting. Masked protesters stormed the agency’s local office in 1996. …

“Years of meetings followed as federal and city officials sought input from environmental groups and timber interests to forge solutions. A mutual willingness to keep talking dissolved the distrust that prevailed at the outset, and by 2001, the Forest Service and Ashland had agreed to rejuvenate 1,500 acres in the watershed. …

“The collaboration has won praise as a national model and subdued the town’s memories of the timber wars by striking a rare balance between ecology and economics. Environmentalists have come to accept that selective logging and brush thinning can increase the watershed’s resilience to fire while sustaining ample habitat for wildlife, and the funding has benefited timber companies that work under [Lomakatsi Restoration Project] supervision.

“ ‘I won’t ever say we’ve got it all figured out,’ says Mr. Chambers, who envisions expanding the project area and treating portions of the land on a 10-year rotating basis. ‘But there’s been a commitment to finding common ground.’ ”

More at the Monitor, here.

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