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Seeking aid from the original fire experts

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More than 150 local, state, federal and tribal leaders attended a forum Tuesday at Inn at the Commons in Medford to address the prevention and impacts of wildfire.

Merv George, forest supervisor of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe in Northern California, said he’s spent more than $1 billion in taxpayer money in the last seven years trying to keep the community safe. He’s hired more than 75 incident management teams and has more than 50,000 firefighters relying on him to keep them safe.

“It’s going to take all of us in this room to get us to a point where we feel safe when we see a lightning storm coming,” George said.

The forum was facilitated by Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative (SOFRC), a group dedicated to bringing organizations together to reduce the risk of wildfire in Southern Oregon in the face of climate change, while protecting and restoring forestlands to more natural conditions.

The forum featured the chair of the Governor’s Wildfire Response Council, U.S. Forest Service representatives, various nongovernmental agencies and 11 tribal leaders.

It was the largest gathering of diverse tribal leadership to date to participate in a single discussion of co-management, according to a press release.

George expressed the need to involve tribal leaders in forest management plans.

“I come from a community who has lived in a fire-adapted ecosystem and has used fire since the beginning of time actually to manage the landscapes,” George said. “Today is really monumental, because we’re bringing together all of our agencies, all of our communities, different folks who are interested in forest health and working in a collaborative spirit to take care of our forests.”

A month shy of 95, Agnes Baker Pilgrim is the oldest member of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers and the oldest member of her tribe, the Takelma.

She started the Rogue Leadership Forum by leading a prayer to Mother Earth, “because it works.” She ended her remarks by reminding everyone to pray for water and be grateful for the water that provides life, especially during these conversations about the forests and wildfires.

Dan Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, said the timber industry has a big impact on the traditional, cultural and spiritual uses of the land.

“Things are out of balance,” Gentry said. “So when we have fires in the area, they’re far from natural. We want to find ways to come together and manage the forests in ways that not only benefit tribes in the area, but the community and region.”

Gentry said it’s important for the different tribes to be involved in planning and implementing projects that address the resource concerns. He said the Klamath tribes do not own much land but are still reliant on the resources in the area.

“We signed a treaty with the U.S. government for the benefit of the citizens, and the government has this responsibility to work for us and work on our behalf to manage the federal lands in a way that provides to us our treaty resources,” Gentry said.

Belinda Brown, the tribal partnership manager with Lomakatsi Restoration Project, said she works to engage the tribes of Oregon and Northern California in the work the nonprofit conducts because they are the experts.

“Native American tribes were the first best stewards of the land and the traditions of the past, and they are teaching us the ecological knowledge today of how to take care of the land by carrying on those traditions in indigenous burnings,” Brown said. “Our Native American people put fire on the ground. That fire was medicine for the ground.”

She said Native Americans used fire to manage the land, and without that type of management, modern America is facing catastrophic impacts of wildfires.

She said the goal is to learn the ways of the indigenous people who used those techniques and combine them with Western science to restore the landscape in an efficient way.

Matt Donegan, the chair of the governor’s recently appointed Wildfire Response Council, said the council was started in January with many goals, but with a focus to find out how continued widespread wildfires will impact the people of Oregon. The council will determine which types of treatments will best benefit forest health and community health while creating jobs in rural communities.

“Most Western states are recognizing that times have changed, and that fire is one of the greatest issues of our time,” Donegan said. “What we’re trying to do with this council ... is to really look at the impacts on people — the health impacts, the safety impacts, the impacts on firefighters, look at water security and power security.”

He said all community members will be considered in this analysis, including the vulnerable members.

He said Gov. Kate Brown will be the chair of the National Governor’s Association next year, and it is his hope that the work completed in Oregon can become a template to help other states facing similar issues.

Jackson County Commissioner Colleen Roberts noted the quickly approaching fire season, and she assured the crowd that improved management is a priority for officials all over the state.

“Fire and smoke are regional issues,” Roberts said. “It’s on every agenda on every level of government meeting I attend. It’s on our radar, and it’s on the radar of Jackson County, as well. It’s on the front page of our Medford Mail Tribune every day. How many days until fire season? It’s 61 today.”

She said the county has decided to look closely at the economic impacts — the everyday impacts on citizens — and possible solutions.

This is the second large collaborative approach to addressing wildfires proposed in the last week. Terry Fairbanks, executive director of SOFRC, said it’s because officials all over Oregon are starting to recognize that it’s a shared problem that will go away only with shared solutions.

“We think one of the ways to really bring restoration is collaboration,” Fairbanks said. “Even the federal land managers are saying we need shared successes, and they’re recognizing that the state has a role to play in helping because they’re closer to the communities in many ways and they have resources, as well.”

Fairbanks said the Rogue Basin plan was a collaborative effort created to create resilient watersheds and forests in a changing climate and is a model for what needs to happen everywhere.

“A real part of it is this quantitative risk assessment,” Fairbanks said. “If you put treatments in these places, you can reduce the risk to communities.”

For more information about SOFRC and partners, see www.sofrc.org.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Jamie Lusch / Ashland TidingsThe Southern Oregon Forest Collaborative hosts a forum with Tribal leaders focusing on prevention of wildfires through restoration of dry forests and fire adapted communities.
Jamie Lusch / Ashland TidingsThe Southern Oregon Forest Collaborative hosts a forum with Tribal leaders focusing on prevention of wildfires through restoration of dry forests and fire adapted communities.