Vickie Aldous, Mail Tribune, Medford, Ore.
Jun. 5—Fire agencies plan to aggressively attack fires while they’re small in a bid to protect southwest Oregon from out-of-control wildfires.
Managers said they hope the fire season that started Wednesday will be a repeat of last year. Firefighters in 2021 jumped on hundreds of rural fire starts and stopped them from turning into major wildfires.
“I can’t promise you that we’re not going to have large fires here. But what I can promise you — and this is the direction I’ve given all my folks — is we will leave no doubt that we did everything possible to put fires out this summer,” Oregon Department of Forestry Southwest District Forester Tyler McCarty told Jackson County commissioners during a fire season briefing earlier this week.
ODF is charged with protecting private forestland plus federal Bureau of Land Management acreage.
The agency’s lofty goal is to put out 98% of fires at or below 10 acres. Last year, the ODF Southwest District snuffed out 97.8% of fires at or below 10 acres, McCarty said.
Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor Merv George said he shares the same philosophy to aggressively attack fire starts.
George noted some members of the public believe forests need to see more fire to return to healthier conditions. He said he shares that view for the cool, moist parts of the year, but not during fire season.
“One of the things I have seen firsthand on our forest is when you have a wildfire in the middle of the hottest time of the year, if you get a trifecta — which is 100-degree weather, single-digit relative humidity and east winds — that fire is going to move,” George said.
Massive wildfires have erupted and spread in the region under those conditions, he said.
George said the Forest Service will work to put out fires quickly. However, he said firefighters can’t control everything, such as if a lightning storm brings hundreds of strikes to the area.
“But if we get one that gets away, it’s not because we didn’t try,” George said.
Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer said commissioners support 100% full suppression during fire season. He said he’s glad that leaders of local agencies and commissioners share the same goal.
Commissioner Colleen Roberts said she wishes agencies everywhere had the same view. She said Rogue Valley residents end up breathing in the smoke from far-off wildfires where leaders are less aggressive.
Tyler said agencies will work hard together, but they are facing a mix of conditions this fire season that could lead to large wildfires.
On the good side, the area’s snowpack improved to 140% of normal thanks to spring precipitation, he said.
But Jackson County is still in a long-term drought, with most of the county in extreme drought conditions. Rainfall for June could be below normal, and the long-range forecast calls for a dry July and August, Tyler said.
Fires could be started by humans, or lightning storms without rain could spark fires, he said.
“If we get any of those, or a combination of those lined up, it could be really tough,” Tyler said.
George said late spring rain has helped. Any cool, wet day is one less day of fire danger, he said.
ODF and fire districts are getting a hand from the Oregon Legislature, which allocated more money to boost firefighter staffing and resources when fire danger rises, said Jackson County Fire District 3 Chief Bob Horton.
That will allow leaders to pre-position firefighters and schedule more staffing on hazardous days, he said.
In the past, Horton said, local governments would ask the state to approve a conflagration declaration if a wildfire got too big for local firefighters to handle. The state would then send in outside help.
It could take hours for help to arrive, or even longer if firefighters were coming from out of state, Horton said.
“What we’re seeing this year for the first time is the state making investments in staffing of units pre-conflagration. We think that’s an important component to the puzzle. We don’t want to wait until a fire gets outside our control to start bringing in resources,” Horton said.
McCarty said ODF is hiring more seasonal firefighters to help and working harder on recruitment than he’s ever seen before during his career.
But he said the state needs to reform how it staffs ODF.
McCarty said the state should fund full-time, year-round ODF employees who fight fires in the summer and work on fuels-reduction projects in the winter.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.