The city plans to burn between 30 and 40 acres of its forestland in the watershed this spring to help prevent a catastrophic fire this summer.

The city plans to burn between 30 and 40 acres of its forestland in the watershed this spring to help prevent a catastrophic fire this summer.

Most of the 650 acres of city forestland above Lithia Park haven't burned in more than a century, so a stray spark during the dry season could lead to a massive blaze, endangering Ashland's water supply and hundreds of homes, fire officials fear.

But low-intensity controlled burning in the wet season will minimize the damage a wildfire is capable of, by consuming brush and other fuel, said Chris Chambers, Ashland Fire & Rescue's forest resource specialist.

"We want to restore the structure of the forest to the point where fire can play a natural role in the ecosystem, as it did 100 years ago," he said. "Prescribed burning is the tool of choice."

The city plans to continue controlled burns each spring for several years until all the forestland has been touched by fire, and then to burn a portion every five to 10 years, Chambers said.

"We want to start a program so that it becomes annual maintenance," he said. "This is the culmination of many, many, many hours of work, including by volunteers on the Forest Lands Commission, to restore the city watershed lands."

The city will hire a company that specializes in doing low-intensity prescribed burning and will complete the burning in one day, sometime between the beginning of March and end of May.

The project is expected to cost about $15,000 and will be paid for out of a $30,000 city fund set aside annually for fire-reduction efforts, Chambers said.

Over time, prescribed burning should prove to be cheaper than thinning the forest by hand — and better for the ecosystem, said Marty Main, owner of Small Woodland Services Inc., who has worked in the watershed for the last 15 years on city contracts.

"We understand nowadays that there's a lot of ecological processes that hinge on fire happening, that there are some things we don't accomplish with just thinning," he said.

The City Council approved the controlled burning as part of the Ashland Forest Plan in 1994.

Crews will do controlled burning only under safe weather conditions and when the wind will push the smoke away from the city, Chambers said. Controlled burning regulations are so strict that even with the three-month window this spring, it's possible — although unlikely — that weather or atmospheric conditions won't allow for burning this year, he said.

"The city has taken a really cautious approach to fire management," Chambers said. "This is going to be very controlled and we're not getting anywhere close to houses or anything that would be considered at risk if the fire got away."

The potential for the fire to escape will be low, because the fire will not be burning at a high heat and flame lengths will be kept to about 4 feet, he said. Using drip torches, crews will burn along a line approximately 5 to 10 feet wide the length of the parcel, wait for the fire to extinguish itself, and then ignite the next few feet, gradually burning wider strips, Chambers said. Firefighters will be stationed at the fire line to put out sparks that cross it, he said.

The low-intensity fire should consume brush and small trees, but should not kill larger, healthy trees. Fire promotes growth in forests by releasing nutrients into the soil and reducing competition for space.

Fire officials are trying to mimic the natural role fire played in the forest's ecosystem until about 1900, when fire suppression efforts began. Prior to that, fires ignited by lightning and Native Americans would burn every portion of the forest every five to 15 years, Chambers said.

Eventually, fire officials would like to get the forest to a place where, if lightning ignited a blaze, they could let it burn out naturally, instead of worrying about it becoming a massive fire.

"Ultimately, if we had a lightning ignition, we'd like to be able to monitor it instead of having to actually suppress it," Chambers said.

Fire officials will jump on all human-caused fires, however, because they aren't part of the natural ecosystem, he said.

To prepare for the prescribed burning, the city has been thinning the forest for the last 15 years.

"When you have a lot of understory fuel and undergrowth, and trees are not as healthy as they should be, fire can be destructive and can have severe effects on trees," Chambers said. "It took us about 15 years to get the understory cleared."

The city has done only one prescribed burn on city lands in the past 10 years, a 9-acre burn in a watershed canyon in 2007.

The area the city hopes to burn this spring is located along the BTI Trail, just uphill from the swimming reservoir in upper Lithia Park.

"This is a key spot in the Ashland watershed where fire suppression is really important," Chambers said. "This will give us a strategic zone so that if a fire starts, we can get on it really quick and be very effective at putting it out."

Meanwhile, Ashland Forest Resiliency Project officials are working to thin and burn select U.S. Forest Service land in the watershed, to help reduce the chance of a catastrophic forest fire there. Early last week, crews burned about 20 acres in the upper watershed.

Chambers expects it to take 30 to 50 years to undo the damage of fire-suppression efforts over the last century and to restore the forest to the health it had in the 1800s, when low-intensity burning occurred regularly.

"Eventually, we want to get the forest to the point where nature can take over again," he said. "That's our long-term goal for the watershed."

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or