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Tidings file photo
Martha Browning and Peter Fetterman of LA make their way through downtown Ashland wearing face masks due the poor air quality.

‘Smoke Summit’ to tackle problems, seek solutions

Calling this summer’s wildfire and smoke “emotionally and financially devastating,” state Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, is organizing a Smoke and Fire Summit to help shape strategies for forest management, health impacts, economic remedies and climate change. The three-hour cram-course on smoke problems and possible responses is set to offer views of 15 local and statewide speakers from government agencies, universities, nonprofits and forestry, tourism and business interests, including legislator Marsh, who serves on the House Energy and Environment and Economic Development and Trade committees.

It’s free, public and starts at 9:30 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 15, at Southern Oregon University’s Stevenson Union.

“This will give us the opportunity to come together and plan how to mitigate, adapt and become a more resilient community in the face of the persistent threat of wildfire and smoke,” said Marsh. “We feel pretty beat up by this summer and business has taken a big hit. It’s easy to feel helpless, but that’s not productive. There are things we can do to better adapt and make ourselves more resilient in the face of multiple threats.”

Marsh says the panels will survey forest management models and “what they look like on the ground in our part of the world.” They will examine both individual and community health issues, she says, even the possibility of shelters from smoke.

With area businesses reporting a significant loss of income for almost two months, the panels will examine what state assistance might be available, Marsh said, including such questions as, “What guidance can we get for business on the direct impacts and how should we think differently about the tourist industry, which is very dependent on the summer season?”

On the forest management panel are:

• Chris Dunn, a research associate at the Oregon State University College of Forestry, who will explain the history of forest development and why the impact of fire is so severe today.

• Mark Webb, executive director of Blue Mountain Forest Partners, will share a model and lessons of collaborative work in Eastern Oregon.

• Marko Bey, Lomakatsi Restoration Project executive director and board member of Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative, will discuss work being done locally and opportunities for stewardship agreements in the Rogue Basin.

• Don Ferguson, area resident and retired Natural Resources Staff Administrator for the Bureau of Land Management will moderate.

The impacts of smoke on human and community health will be addressed by:

• Lillian Shirley, Public Health Division director for the Oregon Health Authority (OHA).

• Jackson Baures, manager for Jackson County Public Health.

• Richard Leman, M.D., chief medical officer for OHA Health Security Preparedness and Response.

• Belle Shepherd, an OHA Coordinated Care Organizations innovator agent for four Southern Oregon counties, will moderate.

The panel of regional economic experts on creating resilience in a business environment impacted by ongoing smoke and fire includes:

• Alex Campbell, Southern Oregon regional solutions coordinator for Gov. Kate Brown’s Office, will share about resources and assistance available through the state.

• Janet Soto Rodriguez, entrepreneurship strategist with Business Oregon, on how communities can innovate to build resilience, sharing examples of rural communities that have taken on the challenge of “rethinking themselves.”

• Ashland Chamber Executive Director Sandra Slattery will address concrete protective actions here, as well as the need to “rethink how we market to the tourism industry.”

• Bill Thorndike, president of Medford Fabrication and board member of Southern Oregon Regional Economic Initiative (SOREDI), will moderate and summarize strategies presented by economic panelists.

The scientific community and policy leaders, which recognizes that “climate change is the driving force behind longer fire seasons and increasing fire intensity,” according to the event announcement from Marsh’s office, is set to be represented by: • Bill Bradbury, former Oregon Secretary of State and appointee to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, who will discuss the relationship between climate change and forest health as well as public policies to achieve targeted reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

• Kaola Swanson, the Oregon program director for Pacific Forest Trust, on policies that can help stabilize and support “working lands” and incentivize sustainable forestry.

• Shaun Franks, sales and marketing manager for local solar installer True South Solar, will moderate.

Bradbury, who is a teacher in Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps, said in an interview that the huge amount of burned acreage and smoke is “caused in large part” by climate change, which is bringing more dramatic rainfall in winter and more heat and drying in summer

The next state legislature, said Bradbury, a longtime past legislator, can help reduce greenhouse gases by capping carbon emissions and investing in clean energy. “Then we can start to slow the temperature increase, but if it’s business as usual, temperatures will go up, and wildfire and winter rainstorms will worsen.”

Bradbury emphasized that the world can act in an emergency, as it did by banning the refrigerant freon to plug the dangerous hole in the ozone, with no government forcing them to do it, but “I wouldn’t hold my breath because of the current administration. However, a lot of corporations, nationally and internationally, recognize their future depends on getting control on climate and they’re working to reduce their pollution.”

The forestry and agriculture industries, he says, will be bringing some new strategies to the summit.

Thorndike, in an interview, said if summer smoke is the new normal, then “we’ve got to understand what type of programs and planning can help small business work its way through it — and (ask) ‘what can we do from an economic development point of view to respond more adequately and think differently?’”

He said the region’s lower-income workforce is experiencing a “quite dramatic” impact from the smoke — and, he adds, the tourist industry may have to move its focus indoors.

In addition, he says, new technology is coming up with answers to thinning brush-choked forests, where fire suppression has been practiced for over a century.

In an interview, Slattery said the Chamber of Commerce and city government over the past three years have worked together, educated the community, and prepared for better air in the workplace via a fire prevention task force, but “after last summer, we realized we’re not prepared (for the large amount of smoke).”

Slattery adds, “With this summit, we’re realizing climate is everyone’s responsibility. We’re all breathing the same air and we’re all responsible for the strategies we will come up with. We can’t throw our hands up in the air and walk away. All these people (at the summit) have different parts of the answers.

“Emotionally, it’s pretty huge, then you add the economy part on top and it’s a triple blow. We have to all be on the same page and work together. It’s not going to be easy or quick, but we’ve got to try. Our community is (made up of) really caring people who want to improve life and the environment of this place we love.”

Marsh says wildfire and smoke will be a major issue in the Legislative session starting this January. “It’s just unrolling now. It will be about what is required to make our communities safer and how to fund that work. That’s our first need and that’s why we’re having this summit. We’re not going to emerge with a blueprint for action, but with a multitude of different conversations that need to happen.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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