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Wyden promises fire prevention progress

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By the time that U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden stepped into the fire camp for the Milepost 97 fire, the most visible reminders of Southern Oregon’s biggest wildfire so far this year were the charred trees and scorched ground bordering Interstate 5.

But Link Smith, the Oregon Department of Forestry’s incident manager, and Aaron Whiteley, operations section chief, were quick to assure the senator that the first few days of the fire were not nearly as mellow.

“I know how hard these folks are working,” Smith said.

As Wyden toured the patchwork of tribal and ODF land mapped out on colorful graphics inside the fire camp’s debriefing tent, he was also eager to provide updates on his own firefight in Washington D.C.

“We got 2 million acres in our state that’s backlogged,” he said. “And that’s not a question of Link’s people. That’s a question of the government being a better partner.”

The acres Wyden referred to are what he and federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service refer to as “shovel ready.” That means the projects have gone through environmental review processes and are, from a regulatory standpoint, ready to move forward.

In the next eight weeks, Wyden said, additional funding should be passed to the two agencies to try to get those “shovel ready” projects going.

Wyden touted his and other senators’ efforts to push federal agencies to spend expected savings from the Wildfire Disaster Account — about $650 million — on wildfire prevention such as clearing out dangerous snags and forest thinning.

“It’s probably been one of the most important things I’ve been a part of,” he said.

Wyden along with other senators including Jeff Merkley focused heavily on ending the practice of “wildfire borrowing,” by pushing the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act in 2018.

The Forest Service and the BLM both would often dig into funding for wildfire prevention efforts in order to cover the costs of fighting fires every summer, which are underestimated every year.

“Those of us from the West who experience the catastrophic destruction caused by wildfires understand the importance of having adequate funding to better prevent and combat these fires,” said Jim Risch, a Republican senator from Idaho, last summer when the funding was added to the government spending bill.

The Milepost 97 fire, however, has burned partly on private and tribal lands as well as public, bringing in a multi-agency attack to the process. Employees from the BLM office in Medford, ODF, Oregon Department of Transportation and others were present for Wyden’s visit.

Smith said that he wanted to reaffirm the efforts of local agencies during the initial 48 hours of the fire.

“To be honest, a lot of great things happened,” he said.

Firefighters had to navigate dangerous snags, including loose rocks and branches, Whiteley said.

A large DC 7 air tanker was used July 25, Whiteley said, but smoke kept it grounded on July 26. When the fire was still below 1,000 acres, helicopters had been employed as often as was safe to do in a confined space.

Even so, aircraft can’t put fires out, Smith said.

“You have to get firefighters on the ground,” he said.

Wyden thanked the firefighters for their efforts.

“I want you to know the whole state knows that you guys have been working around the clock,” he said. “We’re so appreciative of all that you’ve done.”

ODF sent its final news update for the Milepost 97 fire Tuesday afternoon. It was at 65% containment and a total 13,119 acres. Personnel working the fire reached 1,187 people and the cost is estimated at $19.1 million.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

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U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden visits the Milepost 97 fire camp in Myrtle Creek Tuesday.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune