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Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
A crowd turned out Saturday morning for the the Fire and Smoke Summit held at Southern Oregon University.

Breathing new ideas on wildfire smoke

As locals reel from a wildfire season that’s already consumed more than double the average number of acres burned over the past decade, leaving behind still-lingering smoke in its wake, local business leaders say they’re learning to adapt while state officials place new ideas on the table.

Diversifying the local economy beyond tourism was an idea floated by two economic experts Saturday during a Smoke and Fire Summit held Saturday in Ashland.

Looking to tangible ideas in the future and the past, Alex Campbell, the Southern Oregon Regional Solutions coordinator for Governor Kate Brown’s office touted a multifaceted need for developing an economy more diverse than the “tailwind” wine and tourism industries that have become staples.

Campbell used a software firm’s “significant expansion” planned in Ashland as one example of an indoor industry with growth potential, while noting forest management, such as thinning and controlled burns, remains “an economic development issue.”

“At the base, we do need an attractive region,” Campbell said, later adding that a reversal in the increasing wildfire and smoke trends could be a potential “economic asset.”

Further, Campbell said, the region and state has more of its mill infrastructure still in place than other western areas, which he described as a potential asset as thinning overgrown forests becomes greater priority.

Campbell was part of a trio of economic experts at the panel and among nearly a dozen state and local officials who also came from fields of public health, forest management and environmental awareness groups who attended at the invitation of state representative Pam Marsh. Several times throughout the three hours of panel presentations, every seat was filled in Southern Oregon University’s Rogue River Room.

Business Oregon entrepreneurial strategist Janet Soto Rodriguez called the turnout and community interest surrounding the smoke issue as a “strong start.”

“We can build on this,” Soto Rodriguez, part of Business Oregon’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship team, said.

Aside from angel investors and think tanks, a more concrete idea Soto Rodriguez floated was perhaps challenging young people to design an N95 respirator that would be effective for men with facial hair — an issue Oregon Health Authority and Jackson County Public Health leaders described as impacting the masks’ effectiveness.

Soto Rodriguez described past projects she’s worked in other areas, such as $3 million in pooled resources secured in Coos County from various agencies to share a planned “childcare incubator,” which she helped orchestrate to address a dearth of childcare in the region.

“They have the momentum to do it,” Soto Rodriguez said, adding that if successful, it’d be the country’s first.

Ashland Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sandra Slattery touched on ways local businesses and public places have learned to “improve their indoor environments” since last summer’s smoky season.

“We’ve learned about MERV 13 air filters and air scrubbers and air cleaners,” Slattery said, continuing, “What’s an air curtain, and what does all this mean?”

In addition to workshops, the chamber has funded videos, workshops and the task force helped organize and fund SmokewiseAshland.org with the Ashland Forest Resiliency project.

Slattery closed by advocating for more collaborative solutions.

“We’re breathing in the same air,” Slattery said. “Let’s recognize we need to breathe out workable solutions.”

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

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