Blue sky showed up in Medford Friday just as U.S. Rep. Greg Walden and the Environmental Protection Agency Region 10 administrator sat down with community members to talk about the negative effects of smoke.
The sunbeams making their way into the Jackson Room in the Jackson County Courthouse did little to lighten the mood around the tables, however. From representatives of the Medford Chamber of Commerce, the Oregon Cattlemen Association, Del Rio Vineyards and others, the stories rang with frustration and fear about the weeks of smoke that have flooded the Rogue Valley — even earlier this year than last — once again throttling incomes and threatening health.
But the members assembled shared something else — a sense of determination and an unwillingness to accept that such smoke is the new normal.
“I think we’re all here because we’re sick and tired of breathing smoke, seeing our economies go up in smoke and having this wonderful voice,” said Colleen Roberts, a county commissioner, stopping to clear her throat midway through her sentence.
Two public health officials addressed that sickness and tiredness as they discussed the impacts of extended exposure to smoke. Although parents may give their children masks to help them play outside, masks are not fitted for their faces and so are only marginally effective.
The best way to avoid detrimental health effects is to stay inside, said Tanya Phillips with Jackson County Public Health. But Brad Hicks, president and CEO of the Chamber of Medford/Jackson County, and Angela Wood of Travel Medford described how repeated summers of staying inside will continue to bring long-term negative effects on the community.
“When you have events that cancel one year, it’s tough,” Wood said. “When you have to cancel two years in a row, it’s hard to recover and have that event again.”
Hicks said family businesses established for generations had mentioned to him they are considering moving if tourist dollars aren’t likely to pick up in the region.
As he had on his last visit in July, Walden discussed provisions in the proposed farm bill that he and others in the room said would mitigate the effects of smoke and wildfire, including expedited clean-ups after fires and more clearing of fuels during colder seasons.
Several community members said they were frustrated by federal agencies’ approaches to decommissioning roads and not extinguishing some blazes on federal lands aggressively enough.
“I think if we can keep the small fires small, make the conditions around them very non-fire-related — you know, accessible, we can keep these fires under control,” said Dave Schott of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association. “The Forest Service has got to change. They’re a disaster.”
Walden, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he would take the feedback on wildfire smoke impacts with him when he convenes a hearing on the Clean Air Act next month.
“All the data show if you reduce fuel loads, you reduce the smoke when you do get the fire, and you reduce the intensity of the fire,” Walden said.