The Jackson County Board of Commissioners is calling on the federal government to fully suppress wildfires during the fire season — and provide enough money to fight those fires and reduce wildfire risk in forests.
But Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor Merv George said his agency and other firefighting organizations were in full attack mode during the 2018 wildfire season that threatened communities and filled the air with smoke.
He said the Forest Service does not have a “let it burn” policy.
“And just to clear the record, this last fire season that we had on the Rogue-River Siskiyou National Forest as a result of the fires that were ignited by lightning on July 15, we were in a full suppression fire strategy mode the entire fire season until the fires were contained,” George said.
In a proclamation passed unanimously this week, county commissioners said the Forest Service and federal Bureau of Land Management should adopt policies and practices providing for the full suppression of wildfires and related smoke during the state-declared fire season.
“We can’t suffer through many more of these summers. They’re taking a toll, and that toll is continuing to mount,” said Commissioner Rick Dyer of back-to-back summers that choked Southern Oregon with smoke — trapping people indoors and triggering economic losses and negative health impacts.
Commissioners noted that federal agencies control 53 percent of the land in Jackson County.
“We’re trying to get everybody to adopt the philosophy that this is nothing but 100 percent suppression,” Commissioner Colleen Roberts said.
Commissioners praised the Oregon Department of Forestry for its strategy of aggressively attacking fires. ODF, which fights fires on private timberland and for the BLM, has a goal to suppress 98 percent of fires at 10 acres or less, although agency officials said they didn’t hit that goal in 2018.
While some people argue wildfire should be allowed to cleanse forests of fuel, George said he doesn’t think it would ever be appropriate to let a wildfire burn in Southern Oregon during the fire season.
Even remote fires in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area west of Grants Pass should be attacked, he said.
“Well, the problem is fires don’t stay where you want them to. And even though they may be in the backcountry now, if you allow them to get bigger and gain more force, when they finally decide to come out of the backcountry, you may not have the resources to be able to put on it to be able to keep people safe at that time,” George said.
George ordered smokejumpers to attack a lightning-sparked fire in the rugged Kalmiopsis in 2018, but they had to withdraw after three days due to the danger. With so many fire starts close to communities, the on-the-ground firefighters couldn’t get air drops of fire retardant.
The fire grew into the 175,258-acre Klondike fire, which merged with the 52,839-acre Taylor Creek fire.
ODF was critical of a Forest Service action to set back burns that joined the two fires. The state agency also said some out-of-state fire crews that were brought in had a risk-averse philosophy that didn’t match ODF’s aggressive attack mandate.
In their proclamation this week, county commissioners also want the Forest Service and BLM to reduce fuels through logging, thinning and prescribed burning outside of fire season. They want roads kept open to provide access and serve as fuel breaks.
Commissioners are calling on Congress and the Oregon Legislature to fully fund fire suppression and fuels reduction work.
That twin goal of full suppression and full funding would make a difference, they said.
“Those are the two things that will show results most quickly,” Dyer said.
In earlier meetings with commissioners, George said the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest is in a nationwide competition for firefighting resources during the fire season. Areas with more people and houses beat out rural areas like Southern Oregon.
ODF’s Southwest Oregon district has also said it needs more firefighters, fire managers and equipment.
All agencies were overwhelmed on July 15, 2018, when a lightning storm sparked at least 145 fires in Southern Oregon. Most fires were snuffed out in the first 48 hours, but the ones that escaped control grew into large-scale wildfires.
While hundreds of millions of dollars are spent to fight fires, federal and state agency officials have said not enough money is spent to reduce fuel loads in forests.
Oregon Fire Marshal Jim Walker said at a recent Medford forum that a $100 million request for fuels reduction would be realistic.
Insufficient thinning and prescribed burning — combined with wildfire suppression itself — has left local forests overstocked with trees, according to fire experts.
Some areas that once had 50 trees per acre are now chocked with 175 trees per acre, according to Ashland Fire & Rescue Forest Division Chief Chris Chambers, who helps steer thinning projects near Ashland.
George said the forests have to be treated with fire — but it has to be the right kind of fire at the right time.
He wants to see more prescribed burning during the fall, winter and spring when conditions are cool and moist. If a prescribed burn did flare up, firefighting resources would be available — rather than being stretched thin battling blazes across the country.
“That’s where I would rather put my energy, rather than playing the risky game of managing fires in the middle of the summer,” George said.
He called on the public to keep learning about fire and to do their part by creating defensible space around their homes.
Commissioner Bob Strosser said the county doesn’t have control over the actions of the federal government, but residents can take action by reducing fuels on their own property and supporting local programs that make neighborhoods more safe.