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Governor vows more money to fight fires

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown vowed Wednesday to find more money this year to lessen wildfire dangers and to push for a more aggressive firefighting response to reduce the devastating impacts of months of smoke on the region's health and economy.

"We will obviously be having conversations with the Legislature about more resources, particularly for this area," Brown said.

The governor made a number of stops in Medford Wednesday, including at the Medford Air Tanker Base, where she highlighted a $1.5 million grant to the Rogue Forest Restoration Partnership. It's part of $6.3 million in grants to be used over the next few years to thin federal, state and private forests around six communities in Southern Oregon to help avoid the kind of wildfire that destroyed much of Paradise, California, last fall.

“These fires are more ferocious, more fierce than we’ve seen before,” she said.

Brown signed an executive order Wednesday that creates a council to find ways to improve the state’s response to wildfires.

“Make no mistake, Oregon is a national model for fire response,” she said.

Brown wants to increase harvest levels on federal land and strengthen the partnership with federal forest agencies, as well as support organizations that undertake forest thinning operations.

“Many thousands of acres of forests are unhealthy because of past forest management practices,” Brown said.

While millions of acres need to be thinned, Brown and other lawmakers want to focus their initial efforts around communities such as Murphy, Briggs, the Upper Applegate, Middle Applegate and Salt Creek near Butte Falls to help protect homes. A similar thinning project has been underway for years in the forests around Ashland.

Darren Borgias, with the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative, said making the state less wildfire-prone would cost an estimated $600 million over 20 years, or roughly $30 million a year. Such efforts would reduce the wildfire danger about 70 percent for houses and other high-value assets.

“It’s going to be expensive,” he said.

Local legislators and officials have urged a greater leadership role for the Oregon Department of Forestry in tackling wildfires, including those on federal lands. In particular, the federal response to the Klondike fire west of Grants Pass has been criticized by local officials because of back-burning operations that generated considerable smoke and spread the fire to surrounding private lands.

Oregon Department of Forestry officials also criticized the handling of the Klondike and Taylor Creek fires.

Brown said she’s heard a different reaction to the federal firefighting efforts.

“I have to tell you from the Chetco Bar fires ... to the Klondike fire that local legislators told me that they saw a tremendous difference in the response from the prior year and this year,” Brown said. “We’re feeling really good about working with our federal partners and to really attack these fires immediately.”

Brown also appeared Wednesday at the Medford Rogue Rotary Club in Medford, where former Jackson County Commissioner Sue Kupillas told the governor, "ODF is doing a fabulous job with the fires and getting on them quickly.”

She said Southern Oregon is looking for immediate solutions to deal with threats to the local economy and health from wildfires, and she urged the governor to look to local officials to help shape any change in state policies.

Brown said she wants to work with local officials and hopes to have people from this area collaborate with the newly formed wildfire council.

“A number of voices will be at the table from this area,” she said.

Brown discussed a number of other issues affecting the state at the Rotary luncheon at Inn at the Commons, but Medford resident Dan Barry asked for her position on the proposed Jordan Cove LNG pipeline project, saying it is overwhelmingly disliked by local residents.

“We would just urge you, plead with you, to reject that project,” he said.

Brown said she thinks it’s her obligation as governor to make sure statutes are enforced, that regulations are followed and that everybody has a chance to make their voices heard.

“I’m remaining ... neutral on that particular facility,” she said.

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

Gov. Kate Brown signs an executive order to create a new council to study wildfire response during an appearance at the Medford Air Tanker Base Wednesday. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune