Southern Oregon is enduring yet another tragic and costly fire season, and there's been much debate on the connection between wildfires and the federal government's mismanagement of public forest lands.
When the 2013 fire season is finally over, Jackson County's economy will have lost jobs and tens of millions of dollars across a wide range of industries — from timber to tourism. This season has already taken a significant ecological toll, as we've already lost tens of thousands of acres of public and private timberlands that could take generations to recover. The most significant impact this year is the loss nationally of more than 30 firefighters that bravely made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our homes, communities and natural resources.
As elected officials at all levels of government seek reforms to forest policies, it's critical that we also consider the costs of wildfire smoke to public health and especially to our most vulnerable citizens. This summer's wildfires stretched the resources of our county and local health care system, and these costs are simply not sustainable if we continue to see devastating wildfires in our region.
Our dedicated public health employees have put in hundreds of hours of additional time, and even volunteered their own time, to help people who were stricken by the effects of wildfire smoke. Our local hospitals saw an increase in patients with underlying heart or respiratory conditions that were trigged by the smoke. In addition to funding public safety efforts, the county has spent a significant amount of taxpayer dollars on everything from distributing masks to fixing air-conditioning systems in our public facilities.
The consequences of wildfire smoke to the Rogue Valley can't be taken lightly. This year's wildfire season has exposed county residents to a variety of dangerous pollutants such as carbon monoxide, atmospheric mercury, ozone, and a harmful cocktail of hydrocarbons and partially oxidized compounds. We've also been subjected to fine particulate matter, composed of soot and ash, which are too small for our respiratory systems to filter out.
A collaborative effort of health officials from three states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found the wildfire smoke can include serious health disorders, including reduced lung function, bronchitis, asthma and premature death. Those with cardiovascular disease are at higher risk of heart attacks, strokes, cardiac arrhythmias and blood clot formations. Elderly citizens are more likely to have pre-existing lung and heart disorders and are extremely vulnerable to the effects of smoke particles. Because wildfire smoke contains many of the same compounds as cigarette smoke, there is also a major risk to pregnant women and their unborn children.
The dangers don't disappear once the fires are contained. Research has found that chemical changes in the soil can release more gases into the atmosphere, affecting vegetation growth and contaminating our water supply. Considering the federal government's typical opposition to salvage harvesting, remaining timber snags can release more carbon dioxide and serve as fuel for the next fire.
Though virtually all people understand that wildfire smoke is hazardous to human health, many don't realize that actions can be taken to prevent future fires and minimize risks to the public. Fifty-seven percent of Southwest Oregon's landscape is vulnerable to crown fires during the summer months. Due to the lack of active management, our federal forests have become overstocked and overgrown, which makes them particularly vulnerable to wildfire. It is critical for Congress to pass legislation that enables our communities to properly manage forests both before and after a fire. Unless the federal government returns these forests to local control and management, Congress must assure adequate funding for wildfire prevention programs. They must reform policies that strangle large-scale management programs in lawsuits and bureaucratic red tape. If they fail to reform these policies, this summer is a taste of the new normal.
I was a firefighter in Southern Oregon for more than 20 years before joining the Jackson County Commission. Exposure to smoke was part of my job. But many citizens don't have the health, training and resources to cope with a catastrophe that has become too common in the Rogue Valley. Active forest management not only benefits our economy and environment, it promotes public health and saves lives.
Doug Breidenthal is a Jackson County commissioner.