We have been relentless in calling for local, state and federal officials to take action before the 2019 fire season begins. To their credit, they are responding.
Gov. Kate Brown visited Medford last week to sign an executive order creating a new council to find ways to improve the state’s response to wildfires. We criticized that move when she announced it, saying Southern Oregon can’t wait for a committee to study a problem that has filled the region with smoke two summers in a row.
During her visit, Brown signaled that she understands that sense of urgency, vowing to work with the Legislature to ramp up funding to address wildfire dangers and be even more aggressive in attacking fires when they start.
Also last week, Jackson County commissioners called on federal forest agencies to adopt a policy of all-out fire suppression. In fairness to those federal agencies, much of that depends on Congress to appropriate resources, such as aircraft, so agencies here can spend more energy fighting fires and less time competing for scarce equipment and personnel with other areas also hit by wildfires.
Let’s get one thing straight from the outset: The U.S. Forest Service does not have a “let it burn” policy. Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor Merv George has made it abundantly clear his agency was in “full suppression fires strategy mode” for the entire 2018 fire season after lightning ignited fires on July 15.
That’s not to say that low-intensity fire that cleans out undergrowth and leaves mature trees standing isn’t a good thing, because it is. And over the long term, thinning and prescribed burning in the off-season, especially near communities, must proceed to help prevent the kind of deadly fires that erupted in California.
But in the short term, doing everything possible to keep fires from spreading and filling our skies with smoke should be an immediate priority.
Efforts by Oregon’s congressional delegation to end “fire borrowing” and allow disaster relief funding for firefighting, along with measures to increase forest road maintenance and improve access to wilderness fires, will help. So will increased appropriations of federal and state funds for collaborative forest restoration work.
Large-scale thinning and prescribed burning will do the most to reduce fuel loads in the forests, but that is a multi-year effort, not something that can be done between now and June 1 — potentially the start of this year’s fire season. What can be done is to marshal as many resources as possible so local, state and federal firefighting agencies can be ready to respond when lightning — or human carelessness — strikes again.