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Time to take action to limit summer fires

When I attended Ashland High School in the 1980s, we looked forward to summer as a time to play in our great outdoors. It’s a Southern Oregon tradition.

But in recent years, the average size, frequency, and severity of wildfires has been increasing. Air quality in Oregon has been among the worst in the nation and Oregonians spend several weeks each summer limiting outdoor activities due to smoky skies. We’re wearing masks to protect our health. Our neighbors are leaving their homes. Our economy is being affected — damage caused by wildfires cost our country more than $18 billion last year. And firefighters are risking their lives to protect us.

Wildfires are part of nature. What’s unnatural is our increasing wildfire season.

Our congressional representative, Greg Walden, has developed a recent fascination with these fires. A little over a month ago, he ran radio ads essentially declaring “Mission Accomplished” on wildfires. His solution has been to promote clearcutting and limit our public review process. But anything less than a comprehensive solution is just blowing smoke.

Representative Walden blames red tape, litigation, and outside interest groups for Oregon’s fires. But the Endangered Species Act didn’t cause beetle infestation or the invasion of highly combustible grass species. Judges didn’t raise average summer temperatures. And conservation groups didn’t extend the average fire season from 30 to 60 days.

Forest management experts will tell you: Allowing unhealthy forest conditions to prevail will result in severe fire and insect infestations. Nearly 9 million acres of Oregon’s pine forests — mostly on public land — are in urgent need of attention. Experts tell us that site-specific tree thinning, woody biomass utilization, and prescribed fire can reduce fuel levels and wildfire risk. We should make this investment.

Researchers from the University of Colorado and Idaho have concluded that last year’s extreme wildfire season was caused by three triggers: increased fuel loads, a longer and drier summer, and increased human-caused ignition. We can take action on all three triggers. Managing fuel loads can’t be our only strategy. Cutting down trees doesn’t solve the fact it’s getting hotter and drier; just ask Oregon State University’s Climate Change Research Institute. Don’t think that human activity has an impact? Check out NASA research on human activity contributing to this warming trend.

If we keep doing the same things, we can expect the same results. What we need is real leadership, responsible stewardship of our public lands, and science-supported solutions to address changing climate trends.

An obvious opportunity is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and invest in renewable energy. Another great thing about renewable energy is that we have opportunities throughout our district and it would bring good-paying jobs.

In the 20 years Walden has been in office, he has not proposed meaningful policy solutions for the wildfires that have become ever more destructive. Why has it taken an election cycle to get him to pay attention? And why hasn’t he championed investment in renewable energy? Is it because it would displease his corporate PAC donors from the fossil fuel industry?

Are the corporate PAC donors the “us” referred to on his billboards?

These extreme smoke events have been going on for several years. They are not new. The smoke is a serious health hazard. This is another reason why the one in five people in our district — those who face losing their health care had Walden been successful last year — may be upset by his inaction.

As a representative, you’re not expected to personally prevent wildfires, but you are expected to take appropriate action to protect the health and well-being of your constituents.

Photo ops don’t satisfy the desire of citizens for answers and accountability. Walden needs to hold public meetings and be willing to debate his ideas. If you’re not ashamed of your track record, you should be willing to show up to defend it.

We have a choice this November: Do we want to continue to spend our summers breathing through masks, or are we ready to take meaningful action to make positive change? This choice transcends political party affiliation. At the end of the day, we all breathe the same air.

Jamie McLeod-Skinner is the Democratic nominee for U.S. representative in Oregon’s 2nd Congressional District.