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Mad rush to reduce wildfire risk

The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest already has exceeded its wildfire fuels reduction goal, but is racing to remove more trees and brush before the start of the summer wildfire season.

Forest Supervisor Merv George Jr. briefed Jackson County commissioners Thursday about the progress being made to try and avoid a repeat of the 2018 fire season.

For the second summer in a row, residents endured months of smoke that harmed their health and the local economy.

"One of the things we as an agency are really trying to do is to be more in tune with what our community's needs and wishes are," George said. "We know in southwestern Oregon that we've been hit pretty hard with forest fires, especially the last few years. And we're doing everything that we can to be prepared for this coming season."

The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest hit its target to reduce fuels on 6,000 acres this fiscal year. Crews are continuing to burn small-diameter trees and brush thinned from area forests before fire season restrictions curtail work in the woods.

“We're doing what we can to reduce the hazards out there,” George said.

The official fire season kicked off June 1 last year.

The Forest Service doesn’t have enough funding or staffing to treat the amount of acreage that actually needs to be thinned, George said.

The best strategy to reduce wildfire risk across the Rogue Basin would involve treating 55,000 acres annually for 20 years across all types of property, including Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land, according to a 2017 study by the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative.

“No doubt, we have a way bigger need than what we are currently treating,” George said.

The work to restore forests is needed due to a century of wildfire suppression, climate change and past destructive logging practices, the study said.

The study does include strategic logging as a tool to help reduce fuels.

George said the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest has a goal to sell 45 million board feet of timber.

He said he wants to involve communities in planning timber sales and fuels treatments so they meet community needs.

“My primary goal for future projects is to keep communities safe,” George said.

While trying to prepare for the coming fire season, most Forest Service workers lost more than a month on the job due to the federal government shutdown that ended in late January. Government workers who weren’t deemed essential were furloughed.

The Forest Service did take a few “burn bosses” off furlough during the latter days of the shutdown so crews could resume burning debris piles in the Ashland Watershed, the Mail Tribune reported in January.

Siskiyou Mountains District Ranger Donna Mickley, who was at the Thursday briefing with county commissioners, said the Forest Service long has struggled to keep up with the burning of piles that accumulate from thinning projects.

Crews have caught up on burning piles in the Applegate Valley, but they are still at work burning piles in the Ashland Watershed, Mickley said.

Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan urged Forest Service officials to make use of the county’s Community Justice work crews. Low-risk offenders serving alternative sentences are available to thin forests and fight wildfires.

Jordan said Forest Service requirements that all workers have extensive certifications hamper the federal government’s use of the county crews. The Forest Service could contract for the crews through the Oregon Department of Forestry, which imposes fewer regulations.

The county dispatched seven Community Justice work crews to help ODF with fires in 2017. That number jumped to 139 work crews dispatched to help ODF in 2018, according to Jackson County Community Justice figures.

A variety of agencies used the work crews to reduce fuels in 2018, including ODF, the Forest Service, BLM, Jackson County Fire District 9 in the Applegate Valley, Central Oregon and Pacific Railroad, Oregon State Parks and Recreation, and local cities, county data show.

Jordan said some of the people who serve on work crews go on to get jobs in forest thinning and wildland firefighting.

George said he is excited at the prospect of using more Community Justice work crews, calling the prospect a win-win scenario.

As for how aggressively he plans to fight fires this summer, George said he will not let wildfires burn to achieve fuels reduction objectives.

“I would tell you with 100 percent certainty, it’s not worth the risk,” he said.

Naturally dry summers, unpredictable winds, a warming climate and nationwide competition for scarce firefighting resources all mean aggressive fire suppression is the right thing to do in southwest Oregon, George said.

Lightning-sparked summer wildfires burn too intensely and don’t yield the same beneficial results as controlled, prescribed fires in cool, damp months, Mickley said.

When it comes to having large-capacity helicopters assigned exclusively to southwest Oregon, George said he can’t change the national Forest Service practice of shifting firefighting resources to the most threatened parts of the country. He said a relatively rural area like southwest Oregon will always lose out to more densely populated regions when multiple fires are raging.

He urged county commissioners to support any ODF efforts to increase the number of water and fire-retardant aircraft available to southwest Oregon.

George said having a helicopter assigned to southwest Oregon would have helped in the battle against the Klondike fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area west of Grants Pass. The fire was one of more than 145 sparked by a lightning storm in Southern Oregon July 15, 2018.

“We did have people on the ground. I had to get them out so they didn’t get killed because we couldn’t get them water drops or retardant quickly enough because we were so busy saving homes,” George said.

The Klondike fire eventually grew to 175,258 acres and merged with the 52,839-acre Taylor Creek fire.

The two fires gobbled up $128 million of the almost $515 million spent on wildfires across Oregon in 2018. The 2018 spending set a new record, eclipsing the previous record of $447 million set in 2017, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

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

Chris Chambers, forestry division chief for Ashland Fire & Rescue, walks through a controlled burn to reduce wildfire hazards in the Ashland Watershed in January. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune