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Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Steve Mitchel begins a Dec. 11 meeting speaking in front of Jackson County commissioners about the impact of the wildfire season on Shady Cove and the Rogue Valley.

Clean air: 'We do have a loud voice'

After hearing from hundreds of residents about the impacts of two smoke-filled summers in a row, Jackson County commissioners plan to lobby Oregon legislators for more firefighting resources and urge federal agencies to battle all wildfires during the fire season.

Commissioners worked out their action plan Thursday after holding a Dec. 11 public hearing about wildfire and smoke impacts. Residents described a host of negative effects, including health problems, economic losses and being trapped indoors for months.

Gov. Kate Brown was widely criticized in Southern Oregon after releasing a proposed budget for the coming biennium that increases the Oregon Department of Forestry’s budget by 2 percent — essentially covering the cost of inflation. The Oregon Legislature, which convenes in late January, will work out a final budget for the state.

“We’re going to advocate for an increase in the ODF budget. And specifically we’d like to see better resources down here for initial suppression,” said Commissioner Rick Dyer.

ODF fights fires on private forestland and also has a contract to protect U.S. Bureau of Land Management land.

Dave Larson, ODF Southwest Oregon District forester, has said Southern Oregon needs more firefighters, bulldozers and managers to guide attack efforts. Other worthwhile steps would be getting an infrared aircraft to spot fires through smoke, keeping forest roads open and adding more mountaintop cameras to ODF’s surveillance system that detects wildfires while they’re still small.

Larson also has said two large-capacity helicopters that happened to be in Ashland helped stamp out some of the more than 145 wildfires sparked across Southern Oregon by a July 15 lightning storm.

While most of the fires were extinguished, others grew into large-scale blazes that smothered the area with smoke.

Dyer said Jackson County can’t dictate how ODF should spend money if it does get more funding from the Legislature.

“But we’re certainly going to give our input that we think we should have better air support here,” said Dyer, an advocate of having firefighting helicopters stationed in Southern Oregon.

Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor Merv George previously told commissioners he ordered smokejumpers in to attack the Klondike fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area west of Grants Pass, but had to pull back ground troops because they couldn’t get air support. Firefighters have few evacuation options if they get into trouble in the rugged, remote area that has been the site of repeated massive wildfires.

Although all fire agencies were out battling fires from the July 15 lightning storm, they didn’t have enough firefighters and equipment to snuff out all the starts, fire officials said.

Some have criticized the Forest Service, saying it doesn’t fight wildfires aggressively enough when they first start and when they’re well underway.

Commissioner Colleen Roberts has been particularly critical of a policy that gives federal agencies the leeway to let wildfires burn.

Commissioners agreed to issue a proclamation calling on federal agencies to attack all wildfires once the state declares fire season is in effect.

Roberts would like to go further and pass an ordinance blocking the “let it burn” option during fire season.

However, Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan noted the county can’t pass a law governing the actions of the state or federal governments.

Commissioners said they want to reach out to Oregon’s congressional delegation and lobby for an end to the “let it burn” option.

“We do have a loud voice here. We represent 220,000 people and we have good relationships with our federal legislators,” Dyer said.

George, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest supervisor, has said he supports full suppression during the state-declared fire season — and even beyond the official fire season. The risk of catastrophic wildfire has become almost year-round in the West, he has said.

Roberts said she also would like to see revisions to the Community Wildfire Protection Plan for Jackson and Josephine counties that would emphasize more aggressive firefighting.

“I don’t want what happened in Paradise to happen here in any of our cities,” she said, referring to the Northern California town that was almost completely destroyed by the Camp fire in November.

More than 80 people were killed in the fire — California’s deadliest on record.

Commissioners said they plan to continue working on short- and long-term solutions to wildfire and smoke problems.

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

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