Wildfire smoke panel draws crowd

To a crowd of more than a hundred concerned about last summer's wildfires, proposed state legislation taking control of how forests are managed from the federal government drew among the warmest responses.

During a community panel addressing the suffocating amounts of smoke over the summer, loud applause and cheers followed state Sen. Herman Baertschiger's mention of proposed legislation giving the State Forester authority to suppress any wildfire.

"I hope I'll get bipartisan support," Baertschiger, who represents the 2nd District that includes Grants Pass, said. "I want to protect our communities."

The event Thursday evening at the Carnegie Building in Medford drew a panel of 11 speakers that included Baertschiger, forestry professionals and experts who touched on the economic and health impacts from the smoke. Organizer Claudette Moore, who officiated the event but was not affiliated with any group, steered the panel and speakers from the audience away from "finger pointing" and toward contacting elected representatives with their own thoughts and ideas.

Among panel members was Curry County Commissioner Court Boice, who said an official with the National Forest ignored him when he asked the agency to nip the Chetco Bar fire five days after lightning started it July 12.

"I pleaded with her to hit it with everything we had," Boice said. Instead it "roared toward Brookings," at one point burning only five miles away from the city in mid August.

Baertschiger agreed, saying, "That fire should have been suppressed."

Brad Hicks, CEO of The Chamber of Medford/Jackson County, expressed frustration at forest management policies that seem to impact tourism and summer business in the Rogue Valley at increasing frequency.

"I feel like I've been doing this every three to five years," Hicks said. "When's it going to stop?"

Kiley Evans, a vintner with 2Hawk Vineyard and Winery, said the smoke from the wildfire taints the flavor of pinot grapes that grow best in Southern Oregon compared to other parts of the state. Pinot noir, among other red wines where grape skin is involved in the wine-making process, tend to carry the smoky ash flavors, he said.

"We want to avoid that because those are things on a palate that aren't considered positive," Evans said.

Evans said 2Hawk's foot traffic in the winery last August was less than half of what it was the same time in 2016.

Susan Aaronson with Oregon Shakespeare Festival said smoke from wildfires is a new reality for which the festival is preparing. Ideas the festival is discussing include a new outdoor theater with a retractable roof and updating or replacing theaters' heating and air-conditioning systems. Costs for the new theater were estimated at $50 million, drawing audible gasps from the crowd.

After suffering similar losses in 2015, a protracted dispute with the festival's business insurance company, Great American Insurance Co., resulted in the company dropping the festival. OSF is uninsurable for losses stemming from air quality, forcing it to adjust projections in its budget.

Riddle-area forester Greg Stratton said the problem is both forest management and firefighting tactics. Stratton said the forests are overgrown, but 600,000 acres of forestland are federal and 40,000 acres are on state land.

"I work out in the woods and they're dying," Stratton said. "The ground just can't support it."

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

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