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Wildfires and fiery rhetoric during Wyden visit

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden used his Sunday visit to Medford to thank firefighters for their efforts battling current blazes, asking what Congress can do to help, and expressing concerns about the remainder of fire season.

Southern Oregon regional managers from the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Department of Forestry and Bureau of Land Management briefed Wyden on firefighting efforts during a meeting in the Medford Interagency Office Sunday.

In the Interagency Office, maps pinned in neat lines on both walls highlighted fire locations, related closures and evacuations in red, yellow and green.

Ryan Sandler, a warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service, began the briefing with details about the most uncontrollable factor in the ongoing fight to contain four fires and three fire complexes in southwest Oregon — weather, and lightning in particular.

The officials who spoke after Sandler relayed the progress their agencies have made against the more than 70,000 acres already burned in the region as of Sunday afternoon.

Sandler said weather this summer has been “close to a worst-case scenario.”

The past three weeks of July this year were hotter than that same period any year previous, Sandler said. Although a cooling period is expected to last about a week in early August, that month is also typically the peak of lightning season.

Lightning already caused most of the fires affecting Southern Oregon this year. Other blazes including the Peninger Fire, which burned 97 acres in Central Point on July 17, were human-caused.

“The severity of fire season is often dictated by lightning — the timing and magnitude of lightning,” Sandler said. “In real estate it’s location, location, location; but with fire season, it’s lightning, lightning, lightning in this part of the world.”

Merv George, forest supervisor with the Forest Service, said that if fire season were a baseball game, heading into August means the end of the second inning.

Wyden asked the officials several questions, mostly focusing on their needs, from equipment to personnel. He referred several times to a bill he helped push as part of a Senate appropriations omnibus passed in March. The bill allows departments such as the Forest Service and BLM to now designate costs from wildfire fighting as natural disaster responses, drawing from an emergency fund instead of taking from other parts of its own budget. The prior method, referred to as “wildfire borrowing,” usually diverted funds away from fire prevention efforts.

Dave Larson, district forester with ODF, said that his agency is facing a shortage of division group supervisors; struggles with attrition and an uptick in retirements are leaving fewer qualified people to manage crews that are fighting increasingly frequent fires often in difficult landscapes. The training to be a supervisor can take upwards of eight years, he said.

Those factors contribute to steeper demands on existing staff, meaning fires take longer to bring under control and respites are brief.

“We call it fire season,” Larson said, “but we’re really not seeing seasons anymore.”

The staff thanked Wyden for his visit and role in increasing their departments’ wildfire funding. Every speaker pointed to cooperation between the agencies as crucial to their progress.

Wyden said he expects the interim director of the Forest Service to deliver a plan this week both for the funds allocated in the omnibus to increase prevention efforts and for sustaining the use of air tankers to fight fires. He pointed to multi-mission aircraft, referenced by one official, as a possible additional resource to support firefighting efforts.

“I sure would like a couple of those,” he said.

Wyden also spent about a half hour at Planned Parenthood in Medford, thanking employees and reiterating his loyalty to the organization and his opposition to President Donald Trump’s conservative Supreme Court pick, Brett Kavanaugh.

“Kavanaugh’s appointment is bad news for Oregon,” he said. “Both from the standpoint of the Affordable Care Act and from the standpoint of Roe v. Wade.”

Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings are expected to begin in the early fall, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stated his intention to schedule them before the November midterm elections.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Senator Ron Wyden, right, listens to Southwest Oregon District Forester Dave Larsen, of the Oregon Department of Forestry, describe the current fire situation and concerns Monday in a joint fire interagency meeting in Medford. Photo by Denise Baratta