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Towns get extra summer fire help

A state grant will give local towns and fire districts extra bodies this summer
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Cole George, carrier firefighter and paramedic, left, and Jose Perez, seasonal firefighter, gear up at the Jacksonville Fire Station Friday. Fire agencies across Southern Oregon received grant money to hire more firefighters this summer.

An extra firefighter will be on the streets of Jacksonville 12 hours per day this summer — paid for by a state grant targeted to boost wildfire season staffing.

Other jurisdictions in Jackson County have also received $35,000 grants from the Oregon State Fire Marshall’s office to add to staff.

Besides the extra firefighter, the award will allow Jacksonville to call in extra help when there are red flag conditions, threat of lightning or other factors leading to increased fire danger.

The 2020 Almeda fire, which devastated the south Bear Creek area, came during red flag conditions.

“This money is for rapid response to get more people on the fires to knock them down and keep them small,” said Jacksonville Fire Chief Wayne Painter.

Other jurisdictions that have received the money include Jackson County fire districts No. 3 and No. 5 and the cities of Ashland and Medford.

Primary red flag criteria are relative humidity of 15% or less combined with sustained surface winds or frequent gusts of 25 mph or greater. Both conditions must occur simultaneously for at least three hours in a 12-hour period.

A fire weather watch is issued up to 72 hours before the above conditions are expected to occur. A red flag warning is issued when the conditions are expected to occur or are occurring within the next 24 hours

Jacksonville’s grant will be used to hire three firefighters who will provide the extra staffing seven days per week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. until the end of summer. It also will allow the city to call back other firefighters when fire potential is high.

“We’ve hired our student interns. If they didn’t work here, they’d probably be working for (Oregon Department of Forestry),” said Painter. The interns work for the department while studying for college fire degrees, and they plan to become full-time firefighters. All have previous experience fighting wildfires, he said.

The program will put rigs on the street ready to roll, said Painter. There’s usually a two-person crew on the main engine, but the funding would allow staffing of a brush rig and a heavy brush rig during high hazard times. They are often away from the station while firefighters check for weed and grass abatement or are answering mutual assistance calls from other fire agencies.

Other districts are using the money in different ways, but all with the goal of being prepared to deal with extreme situations.

“Basically, it allows us to back-fill for a time when we send someone out on a fire if, let’s say, it was high fire danger or a red flag warning,” said Fire District 5 Chief Charles Hanley. “It’s basically a flexible staffing move, so if we need them, we can call them back.”

District 5 takes in 120 square miles of south Jackson County providing service for 23,000 residents including the cities of Talent and Phoenix.

In Ashland, one additional firefighter will be on duty beginning July 9 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The extra money would also allow the department to staff up to 13 firefighters on red flag days or when there’s a serious threat, said Ashland fire Chief Ralph Sartain.

“We’ll be watching the weather and looking for indications to see when we need people present for the community,” said Sartain. Ashland firefighters will be able to volunteer to fill the extra position funded by the grant.

The city of Medford will use the money to staff an extra brush truck during extreme hazard days, when there’s a forecast for lightning or red flag days, said city Emergency Management Coordinator Aaron Ott.

“When we hit the extreme fire hazard as indicated by Oregon Department of Forestry or red flag days or increased lightning, we will staff up that unit,” said Ott.

District 3 will be staffing a special operation response resource, focused on the wildland-urban interface, based out of the Gold Hill Fire Station. It will be a mobile unit patrolling the interface areas. The state grant is helping to fund that operation in part, said Fire Chief Bob Horton. District 3 covers 167 square miles from eight stations and includes Central Point, White City, Eagle Point and Gold Hill.

Across Oregon, the Office of the State Fire Marshal has allocated $6 million for wildfire season staffing grants to 179 different fire agencies, said Allison Green, public affairs director. The money came from Senate Bill 762, a measure passed by the 2021 Legislature that appropriated more than $220 million to modernize and improve wildfire preparedness.

Applications were solicited June 6 and were closed three weeks later due to demand, said Green. The agency raised the amount available from the initial $4 million to $6 million.

“We have seen a decline in volunteers and capacity in general. We were so excited,” Green said of the ability to award the grants. “It boosts capacity across the board.”

The grants can cover personnel costs including students, interns, paid volunteers, extra shifts and overtime for career firefighters and seasonal firefighters who need minimal training.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.