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'When you can't breathe, nothing else matters'

Smoke-filled summers mean Duane Christensen’s family can no longer live together in the Rogue Valley.

His 22-year-old daughter, who has the lung disease cystic fibrosis, had to move away.

“It’s been devastating for us as a family. We wish our daughter could live with us,” Christensen told Jackson County Commissioners during a public hearing about wildfire and smoke impacts held Tuesday night at North Medford High School.

Christensen said there are real people out there suffering from smoke that lingers for months in the summers.

“When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters,” he said.

Christensen wasn’t the only one detailing health problems at the hearing.

Plagued by headaches triggered by smoke, Medford resident Sandra Schmitz was downing aspirin every six hours — but ended up with stomach bleeding and a $26,000 hospital bill.

Others recounted spending weeks as virtual prisoners in their own homes.

“This summer my children and I were stuck indoors for five weeks,” said Stacy Thomas, a mother of four.

She said her kids had to wear masks just to walk a few blocks to a friend’s house. When the air quality reached unhealthy and hazardous levels, Thomas had to keep them inside, despite their pleas to play outside.

In order to have fresh air to breathe, her family members turned into smoke evacuees, driving four hours and staying in hotels.

Many who spoke at the hearing said they or others they know have moved away or are considering leaving the area.

Realtors and homebuilders reported heavy losses as potential clients decided against settling in Southern Oregon.

Businesses also reported being hard hit by the persistent wildfires and smoke.

A long list of outdoor events was canceled, from a 50-team softball tournament to the King of the Rogue whitewater competition, tourism industry officials said.

Travel Medford Senior Vice President Eli Matthews said some tour operators reported business was down by 80 percent, while one golf course saw a 40 percent drop in golfers.

Crater Lake National Park — the area’s top attraction with 750,000 annual visitors — saw 22 percent fewer people during July alone, Matthews said.

This year, most of the area’s wildfires were started by a July 15 lightning storm that sent down thousands of bolts and triggered at least 145 fires. The largest wildfire — the Klondike fire that burned mainly in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area west of Grants Pass — surpassed 175,000 acres and wasn’t declared fully contained until Nov. 28.

Matthews said the community needs to come together to tackle the problem of wildfires and smoke.

Most people at the hearing agreed forests in the West have become overgrown and fuels must be reduced, but they didn’t all agree on the best method for attacking the problem.

Medford resident Steve Richie said the pendulum has swung too far, with anti-logging forces having too much power over the forests’ fate.

Richie said when Oregon harvested and milled its own timber, wood was available to build affordable housing and Jackson County funded services like libraries with shared timber revenue from federal lands. Now fossil fuel is used to transport Canadian timber to the United States — all while American forests burn.

Richie said forestry practices have improved so that trees can be harvested sustainably and responsibly. He advocated extinguishing wildfires in the summer and conducting thinning and prescribed burning in the off-season.

A former logger turned wildland firefighter, Pancho Parker said a middle-ground approach is needed, not clearcutting or a hands-off attitude. He said logging larger diameter, commercially valuable trees would help pay for the thinning of small diameter trees and underbrush.

But Parker said environmental groups are raising the cost of projects by filing appeals against agencies like the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Alan Journet of Southern Oregon Climate Action Now said people need to accept that wildfire is a natural part of the region’s ecosystem, with fire helping to thin forests. But aggressive firefighting has worsened fuel loads in the woods.

Any proposal to treat forests that doesn’t include managed fire is doomed to failure, he said.

“Fire is an essential component in our forest,” Journet said.

Many at the hearing faulted the U.S. Forest Service, saying it isn’t aggressive enough when it comes to fighting fires.

But at least one speaker stood up for new Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor Merv George, who has said he wants to suppress wildfires and use a mix of logging, thinning and prescribed fire to reduce fuel loads.

Several people faulted Gov. Kate Brown, saying she is essentially ignoring the desperate condition in Southern Oregon by earmarking $400,000 for a wildfire study in her recommended budget — but not significant funds to boost initial attack and forest treatment capabilities.

Terry Fairbanks of the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative said a hotter climate, decades of fire suppression and a build-up of fuel in forests are all to blame for crowded, diseased trees prone to high intensity fire.

But she said a mix of mechanical thinning and controlled burning could reduce those fuel loads and improve forest health — all while generating jobs and lumber.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.