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Wyden says wildfire help on the way

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MEDFORD -- U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden promised Wednesday that federal help is headed to Southern Oregon to confront our wildfire problems.

He said he's shepherded legislation that will stop a long-standing practice of raiding fire prevention coffers to pay for wildfire suppression.

"The fire prevention funding got the short end of the stick," he said before about 300 residents who showed up to a town hall at North Medford High. "That will end with a law that will be put into effect in the next couple of months."

A spending bill passed by Congress last week secured $100 million this fiscal year to help suppression efforts and reduce fire borrowing prior to the legislation supported by Wyden taking effect in 2020. Another $7 million has been set aside to train the National Guard in how to handle fires.

Wyden said the need for help is immediate in Oregon after two summers of wildfires and smoke.

“We all know that in every corner of the state we’re concerned about fires this summer,” he said.

Wyden’s legislation will treat wildfires as natural disasters, which will open up a different federal emergency funding stream for suppression. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management currently divert money from other programs to pay for firefighting.

Wyden said the change in the way federal agencies budget for wildfire should free up more money for thinning projects that reduce wildfire risk.

“This should accelerate the cleanup of dead and dying timber,” he said.

Wyden, who has championed other wildfire legislation, also touted his Oregon Wildlands Act, which creates the Devil’s Staircase Wilderness, and sets aside more land for environmental protection, including along rivers and tributaries of the Rogue River.

“This will help shore up the recreational economy in rural Oregon,” he said.

Wildfires were on many residents’ minds, but Wyden fielded questions about other heated issues facing Washington legislators.

Virginia Camberos, regional director of Unite Oregon, said more needs to be done to recognize immigrants here on a temporary basis, known as Temporary Protected Status.

“Do you support a path to residency for TPS residents?” she asked.

Wyden said he continued to support a path for these temporary residents, noting that immigrants have made this country stronger not weaker.

He rebuked President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to divert federal money to extend a wall between Mexico and the U.S. The audience booed at the national emergency declaration.

“I will certainly oppose this wall,” Wyden said to applause.

In the past, he said he has supported some fencing along the border, adding more patrols and increasing drone surveillance.

Sean Hicks, a St. Mary’s High student, expressed alarm at Saudi Arabia’s recent actions, including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the attempt to transfer nuclear technology by the Trump administration.

“Which actions can Congress take, and what would you support?” Hicks asked.

“There has been a whole host of crimes committed by Saudi nationals,” Wyden said. “I’m not going to let a medieval regime flout international law.”

He said he’s alarmed that a Saudi student involved in the alleged murder of a Portland teen was somehow whisked out of the country before the case went to trial. The student was Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah, who had managed to take off a tracking monitor before vanishing. Wyden said it appeared the student had a forged passport.

Medford resident Bruce Bauer with Southern Oregon Climate Action Now said many local residents are opposed to a liquefied natural gas terminal in Coos Bay and also to the pipeline that would traverse much of Southern Oregon.

“Where do you stand on it?” he asked.

Wyden said he made a judgment six years ago to listen to all voices supporting or opposing the project.

Despite his neutral stance, he joined U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley last year in admonishing the Trump administration to stay clear of political interference in the Federal Regulatory Commission’s review of the project. At the time, Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic advisor, said Jordan Cove was a priority for the administration.

Wyden didn’t say whether he was more inclined to oppose the project.

“I made a pledge six years ago, and I’m sticking to it,” he said.

On a different note, Medford High student Cole Hanny wondered whether Wyden could change the start time for school by an hour, so he wouldn’t have to get up for a 7:30 a.m. class.

“Personally, I have many sleep problems,” Hanny said.

While the question got some laughter from the audience, Wyden said there has been some science suggesting a later start time for school would benefit students. But he said he thought this should be dealt with on a local level.

“I suggest you go to the school board,” Wyden said.

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

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSenator Ron Wyden answers questions inside the North Medford High School auditorium during the Jackson County town hall meeting Wednesday morning.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden promised Wednesday that federal help is headed to Southern Oregon to confront our wildfire problems.