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Medford braces for next disaster

Since 1973, 18 emergency declarations have been declared for Jackson County, mostly for fires
The 2018 Peninger Fire burns along Biddle Road in Central Point. Wildfire, drought, earthquakes and winter storms top the list of disasters faced by Medford, according to a city disaster mitigation plan. [Mail Tribune / file photo]

Wildfire, drought, earthquakes and winter storms top the list of disasters that could devastate our valley.

Medford City Council adopted a five-year disaster mitigation plan Thursday that aims to prevent personal injury, loss of life and damage to property and the environment from natural disasters.

A committee of Medford officials and other organizations developed the plan and rated the potential for disasters, along with recommendations.

“There are about 54 of them recommended from the group to help lower our risk and make Medford and the area a little bit safer for us,” said Aaron Ott, the city emergency management coordinator.

One of the goals of the five-year plan is to increase the amount of bed space for homeless people to get them out of areas such as the Bear Creek Greenway, which are prone to fires. The city adopted its first five-year disaster plan in 2017.

In addition, more effort will be spent cleaning up trash and other debris left from the homeless camps.

In 2020, the Almeda Fire, which started near the Greenway, destroyed 2,500 residences, mostly in Talent and Phoenix.

The city plans to continue to reduce weeds on public property and in vacant lots, alleys and side roads. The city also helps local residents with fire hazard reduction on their property.

Other efforts will include more community outreach, including to Spanish speakers and the elderly, more coordination with other agencies and the development of a wildfire protection plan.

Councilor Mike Zarosinski said he thought some of the proposals would be challenging to finance, and he wondered whether the plan would affect local insurance rates, citing a state wildfire risk map released earlier this year that some feared would lead to higher insurance rates or denial of coverage.

The state eventually withdrew the map after a public outcry, and a follow-up announcement by state insurance regulators said there was no evidence that insurance companies had used the map to alter insurance rates or deny coverage.

Ott said, “This plan has no impact on insurance ratings.”

He said the city’s plan “opens up the gateway for more funding from state and federal levels.”

At the top of the list of natural disasters that could befall the Medford area in any given year include wildfire, drought, a winter storm or a Cascadia subduction earthquake, which could leave Interstate 5 impassible for weeks or months.

In the next tier of possible natural disasters are infectious diseases, poor air quality, extreme heat and flooding.

Other potential disasters include a more localized earthquake, a windstorm, a volcano and a landslide.

After review by the state, the plan will be sent to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for adoption.

Oregon has experienced 94 federal disaster declarations since 1953, when the federal government began declaring them

Federal disaster declarations for Jackson County have included four for major rain or flooding events in 1964, 1974, 1997 and 2006.

A major disaster declaration for the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing.

In 2020, wildfires, including the Almeda Fire, prompted a disaster declaration.

Oregon and local officials have also declared disasters.

Since 1973, 18 emergency declarations have been declared for Jackson County, mostly for fires.

Smoke from fires is another hit to the health of local residents and to the economy.

Since 2010, the county has had on average 15.8 days a year with unhealthy air.

The past five years have been the worst, with 2018 notching 48 days in the unhealthy range followed by 2021 with 35 days.

The only years when air didn’t get into the unhealthy range were 2010 and 2016.

Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at dmannnews@gmail.com.