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Officials forecast no end to smoky summers

With fire seasons growing longer and forests choked with too many trees, fire officials said everyone has to play a role in combating wildfires and smoke.

A panel of fire officials briefed the public on issues facing the community during a Thursday night wildfire forum in Medford hosted by state Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland.

Oregon Fire Marshal Jim Walker said the fire season used to run from July into September, but is now starting earlier and ending later. Conflagrations that require state resources are bursting out in early June.

“If this is the new norm, then we need to come up with new solutions,” Walker said.

Greensprings Rural Fire District Chief Gene Davies heads a small volunteer group that tries to protect rural, isolated homes in the forested hills east of Ashland. Volunteers are usually first on the scene. They are seeing more fire starts and more intense wildfires.

While many people wonder if Southern Oregon is seeing a new normal, Davies said he actually thinks the fire danger will escalate every year.

Oregon Department of Forestry Southern Oregon Area Director Dave Lorenz said five out of the last six fire seasons have been worse than average.

“Things have definitely gotten worse,” agreed Ashland Fire & Rescue Forest Division Chief Chris Chambers.

Before settlers arrived in Southern Oregon, frequent wildfires cleansed forests of brush and small trees, leaving behind large diameter fire-resistant trees. A century of wildfire suppression has helped contribute to overstocked forests, Chambers said.

Areas that once had 50 trees per acre are now chocked with 175 trees per acre, and they’re all competing for water, nutrients and sunlight, he said.

Drawing largely on federal funding, Ashland has helped funnel $25 million into the local economy and put people to work in the woods with forest thinning in its watershed.

The thinning can’t entirely pay for itself, but Ashland has sent 15 million board feet of timber to area mills, Chambers said.

However, dry winters and smoke regulations are hampering efforts to burn piles of small trees and brush in the spring, winter and fall, he said.

Walker said a rule change is pending that would ease regulations and allow more burning.

To address wildfire risk throughout the area, the Southern Oregon Restoration Collaborative has developed the Rogue Basin Strategy, a decades-long thinning and prescribed burning plan that could create 1,700 jobs.

Walker said more money needs to be spent up front on reducing wildfire risk. He said if he asked for $100 million for prevention, people would call him crazy. Yet the cost of fighting fires on all land in Oregon in 2018 was approximately $500 million.

“We need to make the decision we want to solve this problem — and it does take money to do so,” Walker said.

ODF officials said their goal is to catch 98 percent of fires at 10 acres or less, but they didn’t achieve that target in 2018, when a lightning storm on July 15 overwhelmed initial attack capabilities.

Walker said local fire departments need more resources to buttress their initial attack efforts of all agencies.

ODF, which is essentially the largest fire department in the state, has received more money from landowners fees and the Oregon Legislature for helicopters, air tankers and fire detection aircraft.

It’s using drones and satellite imagery to detect fires that are concealed from planes and helicopters because of smoke. The state agency also borrowed a multi-mission aircraft from Colorado to detect fires through smoke, but that aircraft isn’t always available, Lorenz said.

ODF officials want to expand their early detection system of 14 mountain-top cameras in Jackson and Josephine counties. The cameras, which are monitored by ODF staff, are invaluable for spotting wildfires and tracking fire behavior.

ODF officials said they need more on-the-ground crews and are so short on fire managers that they had to bring managers in from Australia and New Zealand.

ODF would like to see more timber sales off federal land in which revenue could be shared with the state for fuels reduction projects. However, the agency wants to make sure those are additional sales so it doesn’t cut into shared timber sale revenue that goes to counties.

As for what the public can do, ODF officials said residents are key since 70 percent of fires the agency responds to are caused by people.

ODF urged the public to be aware of fire season restrictions.

“For us, the best fire is the fire that doesn’t start,” Lorenz said.

Fire officials said people should look at their property from a firefighter’s perspective and make sure their property is accessible and has been cleared to create defensible space around driveways and buildings.

“Help us to be able to help you,” Walker said.

Fire officials urged everyone to sign up for reverse 911 systems so they can receive alerts about wildfires and evacuations.

“It could save your life,” Davies said, noting many communities have limited exit routes, meaning residents need the maximum amount of time possible to evacuate.

Walker said everyone should have an evacuation plan by March and identify important items they would with them. He said people panic and take the wrong things, or come back and endanger themselves and firefighters because they forgot something important.

As for the impact on the local economy from wildfires and smoke, Chambers urged everyone to support local businesses.

“We will have smoky summers in the future — hopefully not every year,” he said.

Marsh, the state legislator who hosted the forum, noted many elected officials were in attendance — including city officials, county commissioners, state legislators, representatives from Oregon’s congressional delegation and Gov. Kate Brown’s office.

She said they are hearing the message from fire officials and the public that something needs to be done.

“We have a lot of marching orders going forward,” Marsh said.

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

Fire officials address a full house Thursday at a forum to address the growing problem of wildfires locally and across the state. Pictured from right are: modertor Don Ferguson, State Fire Marshal Jim Walker, Dave Lorenz of the Oregon Department of Forestry, Chris Chambers of Ashland Fire and Rescue, and Gene Davies of the Greensprings Rural Fire District. Photo by Denise Baratta