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Firefighting must be a state priority

With the longest and most destructive fire season in state history now behind us, it’s not too soon to plan for next year, and to build up the state’s firefighting capability to be ready for 2021.

As Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous explains in today’s paper, more state-protected acres burned this year than the previous record set 87 years ago. The Oregon Department of Forestry protects private timberlands, state forestland and other rural land, along with federal forests under the Bureau of Land Management.

Along with the record destruction, the 2020 fire season lasted more than six months — the second longest ever — and ODF was already fighting fires in April.

The agency budgets for four months of firefighting.

Southwest Oregon District Forester Dave Larson is calling for a new model of fire protection and funding to replace the one the department has been using for 50 years. State legislators should pay close attention.

Larson wants to beef up what is now a seasonal firefighting staff to year-round employees to reflect the modern reality of wildfire. Modern firefighting requires a high level of skill and training, and that’s hard to maintain with a permanent staff of 25 in the Southwest Oregon District, augmented by 125 seasonal employees.

The Southwest District covers 1.8 million acres in Jackson and Josephine counties, with more wildland-urban interface than any other district in Oregon. Add in climate change and increased fuel loads, and firefighting is more complex and sophisticated than in the past. It’s tough to meet that challenge without years of experience on the fire lines, and it’s hard to keep firefighters coming back without offering them the stability of permanent, year-round jobs.

Staffing is only part of the puzzle. Larson says equipment, from aircraft to more fire and smoke detection cameras, is needed as well.

The state is struggling as a result of the economic downturn from the coronavirus pandemic, but lawmakers got some good news when the September revenue forecast came in $2 billion better than expected. There will be plenty of competition for that money when the Legislature gets to work on the next two-year budget, but state forest management and firefighting must be at the top of the priority list.

That’s especially true in southwest Oregon, one of the state’s most vulnerable regions.