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Local firefighters declare 2021 fire season a success

Firefighters stopped all Rogue Valley fires from turning into major wildfires during the 2021 season. Oregon Department of Forestry photo
Rogue Valley had no major wildfires

After attacking nearly 400 rural fires and stopping them all from becoming major wildfires, local firefighters said cooperation and aggressive initial attack efforts were key to a successful 2021 fire season.

The Oregon Department of Forestry Southwest Oregon District had 337 fires on the private and U.S. Bureau of Land Management property it protects in Jackson and Josephine counties.Those fires were held to a combined total of 389 acres, said Tyler McCarty, interim district forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry Southwest Oregon District.

The largest was the North River Road fire near the town of Rogue River, which was held to 60 acres.

“These stats are very impressive, and they didn’t happen by accident. They happened because of the coordination and the cooperation of all the agencies across the Rogue Valley, including the ones standing behind me right now,” McCarty said Monday afternoon at a press conference with other local fire officials.

The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest had 60 fires that combined to burn 53 acres. Only two burned more than 4.5 acres — the 22-acre Josephine fire and the 10-acre Maple Dell fire, said Dan Quinones, fire and aviation staff officer for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

“We cannot do this alone, and keeping fires small and protecting the communities we live and work in is paramount to all of us,” he said.

Quinones said the Forest Service boosted its efforts to send out planes and helicopters to attack fires while they were still small. It used lightning strike data more often to help with reconnaissance and patrol, and deployed the Siskiyou Rappel Crew on almost two dozen remote fires.

Some people worked shifts of more than 24 hours to make sure fire containment was reached quickly, Quinones said.

While firefighters kept most local fires small, the Medford Airtanker Base supplied 1.3 million gallons of fire retardant to battle blazes elsewhere, he said.

The Rogue Valley suffered through another summer of smoke, but the smoke was mostly caused by more distant fires in Oregon and Northern California.

ODF’s 2021 fire season officially lasted from May 12 until Oct. 20 in Southwest Oregon. But firefighters started consistently responding to rural fires at the beginning of March. Many were escaped debris burns.

Fire officials urged people to clear flammable fuels from their property, but to be cautious if they burn debris.

“Now is the time for landowners to prepare for this next fire season through fuel reduction around their homes and through the hardening of their structures. Fire season may be over, but fires can occur at any time of the year,” McCarty said.

People should follow precautions like clearing around burn piles, not burning on windy days and having water and fire suppression tools on standby, he said.

“Anyone using fire as a tool needs to take reasonable precautions when they’re doing burning on their property,” McCarty said.

This week, the BLM Medford District is launching its fuel reduction efforts for the cool, rainy season. The agency plans to burn piles of debris and conduct prescribed burning on about 900 acres, said Natalie Simrell, fire management officer for the district.

She said 16 fires on BLM land this year ran into areas that had been previously thinned. When fires hit past fuels reduction projects, they generally show less extreme behavior and are easier to fight.

Even if thinned areas aren’t struck by fire, forests are generally healthier because remaining trees aren’t weakened by competition for water, nutrients and sunlight. Trees have a better chance of growing into large, fire-resistant trees, according to many scientists.

For the fiscal year that closed at the end of September, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest exceeded its target and reduced fuels on more than 10,000 acres, Quinones said.

This fiscal year, it hopes to treat 6,500 acres. That work is already underway and should hit 1,000 acres of treated forests by the end of this week, he said.

Firefighters thanked the community for helping and being supportive during the long, busy fire season.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.