Big birds a bargain

With firefighting resources spread thin around the West in a big fire year, luck and timing can make all the difference. If high-capacity helicopters happen to be here and available when a major lightning storm hammers Southern Oregon, that’s good. If those helicopters already have been committed to big fires burning elsewhere, that’s not so good.

So it only makes sense that local officials should explore ways to procure our own dedicated aircraft, so they’re ready and waiting to be called on to attack fires before they have a chance to grow into conflagrations.

Jackson County commissioners are considering spending $2 million to station two Type 1 helicopters here during fire season. Type 1 helicopters are capable of hauling and dropping up to 3,000 gallons of water or retardant at a time. By comparison, Type 2 choppers carry hundreds of gallons.

As luck and timing would have it, two Type 1 helicopters were standing by at the Ashland airport July 15 after working the Klamathon fire earlier in the month. So when a lightning storm ignited 145 new fires, those aircraft were able to attack many of them right away.

Dave Larson, southwest district forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry, says there is no doubt that the presence of those aircraft meant fewer of those fires became big fires, but he wants a detailed study of the past 15 fire seasons before local officials lobby for state funding. It’s possible that one Type 1 helicopter and three Type 2 choppers might be a more effective mix for initial attack.

That’s a prudent step, but not if it means a delay in seeking funding. The 2019 Legislature convenes Jan. 22, and lawmakers will be adopting the next two-year state budget.

As a practical matter, $2 million is not a great deal of money, considering ODF spent $60 million fighting fires in this region this year. And it’s a bargain if dedicated aircraft reduce overall firefighting costs by keeping fires small.

This area’s legislative delegation, which voters are choosing today, should make it a priority to secure state funding. If necessary, the county should put up the money for the first year just to get the aircraft here in time for next summer’s fire season.

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