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Fires show more forest management needed

Firefighters deserve praise for their quick response to the 38,000-acre Klamathon Fire, especially as it burned across the state line into the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. The fire demonstrates the importance of aggressive fire suppression tactics and inter-agency coordination. It also highlights the urgent need for active forest management to influence the size and severity of future fires.

The containment of the Klamathon Fire offers hope that agencies have learned the lessons of last year’s Chetco Bar fire and other past Southern Oregon fires. In this newspaper, we often hear from some environmental advocates who believe the agencies should allow fires to burn on dense forests that are littered with dead and dying trees. Such an approach with the Klamathon Fire would have had disastrous consequences with additional losses of lives and property. And it likely would have caused the devastation of much of the national monument.

Klamathon and other fires currently burning around Southern Oregon also underscore the need for robust system of forest roads, especially on public lands where many are being decommissioned and obliterated. This is evident in the Hendrix Fire that is currently burning through unmanaged stands in Ashland’s watershed. Firefighters can’t attack fires they can’t access, and agencies are understandably unwilling to put firefighters in steep terrain with few paths to escape.

Fighting the Klamathon Fire was necessary but extremely expensive. Containing the fire required the service of nearly 2,800 firefighting personnel, 575,000 gallons of retardant and 942,000 gallons of water. Agencies deployed 21 helicopters, a 747 jet air-tanker and some DC-10s. So far it has cost over $25 million in direct costs, but that doesn’t account for the immeasurable loss of life and property, post-fire rehabilitation, public health impacts from smoke and lost economic activity.

While aggressive wildfire suppression is critical to protecting our communities, it is better to reduce the risks of severe fires before they start. That’s why we need to increase the pace and scale of science-based active forest management on public lands surrounding the Rogue Valley. While logging, thinning and prescribed burning will never stop fires completely, these activities can help reduce the dangerously-heavy fuel loads that have been allowed to accumulate on local national forests and Bureau of Land Management O&C lands.

Unfortunately, the federal government has only made it more difficult to manage the forests it owns. President Obama nearly doubled the size of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, despite concerns that restricting management would leave both public and private lands vulnerable to severe fire. The BLM imposed new Resource Management Plans that place much of its fire-prone forests in Southwest Oregon off-limits to logging and thinning. Local national forests have also kowtowed to the same environmentalists who oppose wildfire suppression and are staunchly opposed to the cutting of any trees.

It is time to reverse course and halt the trend of locking up federal lands from active forest management. We have tried the “hands off” and “let it burn” approach for the past quarter century, at great expense to our economy and forests. Our members of Congress can help by giving the Forest Service and BLM the mandate to prioritize active management, and to provide relief from the obstructive litigation and analysis paralysis that stymies efforts to improve the health of federal lands.

Larger and severe fires in Southern Oregon show us what happens when our forests are not managed, and when fires are allowed to burn until they become conflagrations. It’s time to break from the status quo by reducing fuels, maintaining and improve our system of forests roads, and quickly suppressing fires when they ignite. The quick response to the Klamathon Fire was a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done to end the cycle catastrophic wildfire in our region.

David Schott of Medford is executive director of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association.