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Fire and Smoke: Could more have been done?

Editor's note: This is Part 3 of a five-day series on devastating wildfires and their effects on Southern Oregon done in partnership with KTVL Channel 10. See Part 1 and Part 2.

An Oregon Department of Forestry official doesn’t pull punches when describing the federal government’s response to two of Southern Oregon’s biggest fires this season.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” said Dave Larson, district forester for ODF in Central Point. “Whenever the fire got aggressive, they backed off, but when it got more manageable, they didn’t get on it.”

The Taylor Creek and Klondike fires, started by lightning July 15, burned through more than 200,000 acres. They and other fires pumped heavy smoke into the sky for most of the busy tourist season, costing the local economy millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Larson praised the collaborative work of federal and state agencies on other fires that were put out quickly in the region, including the Garner Complex northeast of Grants Pass and the Ramsey Canyon fire near Sams Valley.

U.S. Forest Service officials have a different view of their fire management, pointing out that only one structure was burned and no lives were lost in Southern Oregon. They also point out that federal resources from the Klondike and Taylor Creek fires were diverted to help put out Ramsey Canyon and other ODF-led fires.

Larson said he was surprised when crews ignited backfires that connected the Taylor Creek and Klondike fires along Road 25 near the Illinois Valley west of Grants Pass. According to a fire update on Aug. 8 from the Forest Service, Road 25 was used as a contingency line to protect Wonder, Wilderville, Selma and Cave Junction.

As a result, the fires crept into private forestlands, which ODF is tasked with protecting.

“They were burning my land without my approval,” Larson said. “I had some words with them.”

Larson said he handed over the management of the Taylor Creek fire to the U.S. Forest Service after it burned into federal forestlands. When he did the handover, Larson said the fire was mostly corralled and he couldn’t understand why it was intentionally joined with the Klondike.

“That was really frustrating,” he said. “I thought we’d handed off Taylor Creek as a complete package.”

By burning an umbilical cord of sorts from the Klondike to the Taylor Creek, it created a “lose-lose situation,” he said.

Larson said he had issues with some of the elite Type 1 fire crews that were brought in from other states. While some embraced the more proactive approach of ODF, others did not. He said these crews have a more risk-averse policy than ODF, which he said has a mandate to attack fires quickly and more directly.

While safety is important for both the feds and the state, Larson said he’s more apt to take on attacks that may have a low to medium possibility of being successful. He’s also more apt to challenge a fire head-on at night when conditions are calmer.

Two fires that ODF assaulted quickly were the Ramsey Canyon and Garner Complex, which were brought under control in days. Larson said having good road systems in a fire area is also critical to gaining control.

One of the benefits of attacking fires quickly and aggressively is that they are put out faster, freeing up resources to go after other fires or new fires that pop up, Larson said.

While Larson said local U.S. Forest Service response has been aggressive at times, including support for ODF on the Ramsey and other fires, he said the problems develop when local resources become scarce and federal officials begin prioritizing the fires they’re going to go after. Fires raged across most western states throughout the summer.

The Oregon Department of Forestry has asked the Legislature for more manpower, particularly hiring more mid-level managers, who are needed to adequately manage and deploy resources quickly.

Other steps to more effectively deal with fires might include a sophisticated infrared aircraft that can map heat spots throughout the state in a matter of hours, keeping dirt roads open in wilderness areas and a greater detection system with more cameras mounted on mountaintops throughout Southern Oregon.

Larson said he would like to see the more aggressive attack strategies that ODF uses be employed on all fires that erupt in Oregon.

“We like to hit them hard,” he said.

Larson said that on the Miles fire, Merv George, forest supervisor of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, wanted to send smokejumpers in immediately.

“He wanted to go after the fires, but without the resources available it fell on the back burner,” Larson said.

George said there was a lot of federal and state cooperation that helped prevent this from becoming an even worse fire season, but he declined to get into “Monday-morning quarterbacking” about specific strategies his agency used, such as combining the Klondike and Taylor Creek fires.

“This fire season we had thousands of dedicated men and women risking their lives,” he said. “We only lost one structure.”

George said in other areas of the country civilians and firefighters lost their lives, but not here.

He said the rumors and innuendos among the public that the Forest Service “let it burn” or didn’t respond effectively or didn’t employ the right tactics do a disservice to the overall work done by firefighters this season.

“There’s no such thing as ‘let it burn,’ ” he said.

For instance, he said federal resources were pulled off the Klondike when the Ramsey Canyon fire broke out, helping put out that fire within a week.

“It’s not state versus federal,” George said.

On the Klondike, it was difficult to attack the fire directly because of the lack of good access. Also, not a lot of homes were threatened by the Klondike, which at 167,423 acres is the largest fire this year in Southern Oregon.

“The resources go to where there is a risk to life and property,” George said.

The Legislature in its next session in January will look at options that might give ODF more authority and resources to help keep wildfires small.

Sen. Alan DeBoer, R-Ashland, said he’s backing legislation that is still being drafted that would give ODF more authority over Oregon fires and to push for better response from federal officials.

“Contrary to what is said, they (the Forest Service) have a let-it-burn philosophy,” he said.

Going forward, DeBoer said he would like ODF to take the lead on fires in Oregon, while acknowledging the state needs resources from the federal government to make it work.

He said more thinning projects such as those done in the Ashland watershed are critical and need to be done on a wider scale in the region.

He’d also like to see Washington act to merge the U.S. Forest Service and BLM into a single agency to make it more responsive to land-management needs.

But, he hopes the Legislature can devise a plan to give ODF the tools to fight fires better.

“I want to know what they need to do the job,” he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him @reporterdm.

Oregon Department of Forestry wish list

More aggressive approach to putting out fires among all agencies, including federal

Change the culture to get fires out more quickly

Add 60 full-time, mid-level management jobs to ODF to deploy resources more effectively

Keep wilderness roads open for better access by fire crews

Buy special high-altitude infrared plane to find hot spots

Create a better detection system to locate fires by increasing the number of mountaintop cameras from the current 12

Source: Dave Larson, district forester for ODF in Central Point

The Taylor Creek fire is viewed from the Robertson Bridge outside Grants Pass on July 28. InciWeb photo