'Hell, no' to more smoke
Millie Carlton has an answer for anyone asserting that smoke-filled summers are “the new normal.”
“Hell, no,” Carlton, a retired businesswoman and now anti-smoke activist, said. “It’s not my new normal. It might be your new normal, and we breathe the same air. But I want clear air.”
Having grown up in Southern Oregon in the 1960s in the care of her father, who owned Pittock Brothers Logging Co., Carlton said she can remember spending her childhood summers out in the forest under clear skies for days at a time.
The recurring smoke she discovered a few months after she moved back to the Rogue Valley in 2016 is a far cry from what she remembers.
“The woods were pristine back in the day when I was a kid,” Carlton said, adding that when she came back, she “was shocked to see the forests completely unkempt.”
Unwilling to accept those circumstances, Carlton has transitioned her two-year-long retirement into a secondary career — working to end summers of smoke in Southern Oregon.
In addition to launching a blog called Scorched to educate the public on wildfire issues, Carlton has teamed up with others in the Rogue Valley who are on a similar mission to keep the clean air conversation going.
She became a member of the Medford Chamber’s Natural Resource Action Team and has organized two events in the coming months with that goal in mind.
The first is planned for 6:30 p.m. Saturday, April 6, when organizers and around 200 paying guests will convene at Centennial Golf Course at 1900 N. Phoenix Road for an evening to discuss ways to mitigate the impact of wildfires on health and various industries. Tickets are $35.
Two months later, on June 1, a community-wide rally and march from Pear Blossom Park to Hawthorne Park will offer chances for education and expression. Topics of those activities will range from Oregon politicians’ voting records on wildfire-related issues to the impact of environmental groups on forest management.
The event this Saturday, called “Wine and Clean Air: The Perfect Blend,” will bring together a range of community members whose livelihoods have been directly impacted by wildfire and smoke.
Ross Allen, co-owner of 2Hawk Vineyard and president of Rogue Valley Vintners, is among the speakers scheduled for Saturday evening.
“The smoke issue is on everyone’s mind,” he said, saying the effects will be “pretty devastating” if the summer trend continues.
Last fall, a number of Rogue Valley growers faced massive losses after Rutherford, California-based Copper Cane winery rejected $4 million worth of grapes it had contracted for, claiming smoke from the Klondike fire had tainted the fruit.
In response, state legislators and a couple of Willamette Valley wineries banded together to form Oregon Solidarity. They bought some of the rejected grapes, which they said were perfectly acceptable, and used them to create three Oregon Solidarity wines.
Consumers can now order a chardonnay and a pinot noir from those grapes. The Oregon Solidarity rosé of pinot noir is sold out.
The net proceeds of the sales will be donated back to Rogue Valley Vintners to help mitigate losses from 2018.
The earliest most customers will receive their Oregon Solidarity wine orders is May 1, according to the project’s website. But Carlton has snagged some to serve at her April 6 event.
“That will be the signature wine of the evening,” she said. “So that will be fun.”
A Camp fire survivor from Paradise, California, whose family lost their home in November will share his story, and Claudette Moore from Southern Oregonians for Clear Skies will discuss local economic impacts of smoke.
That group has coordinated with state and federal legislators, including Gov. Kate Brown and Rep. Greg Walden, to try to encourage policy that would improve Southern Oregon’s chances of having less smoke in the summer.
Carlton plans to use her blog to educate residents on forest management, research and policy as well as the health impacts of smoke.
“We have to hit this subject head-on and stay with it until it’s resolved,” she said. “We’ve had 35 years of neglect in our forests, so it’s not going to happen overnight, but if we have a summer where there’s no smoke, people are going to get complacent and they’ll forget. And we can’t let that happen.”
She’s doing everything she can to make sure people don’t forget, however, including planning the June 1 rally, which she hopes will attract 500 to 1,000 people.
Clean air might not be the only local cause Carlton could throw her weight behind: She’s planning a run for mayor of Medford in 2020.
“I guess you could say I’m not ready to retire,” she said. “I thought I could do it, and for two years I did, and then I was like, ‘OK, I’m really bored.’ ”
But before her campaign for mayor officially begins, she’ll continue to work on wildfires, including traveling to Washington, D.C., with a number of other representatives from across the West Coast to testify for federal dollars to address catastrophic wildfire.
“We have to have good forest management,” Carlton said. “And there’s ways to do that. And it doesn’t have to be destroying the environment. But we also have to be wise in having balance.”