Is a smoke-plagued summer really unavoidable? We cannot prevent summer lightning storms like that of 2018, nor can we be assured that human-caused wildfire ignition, accidental or intentional, will not turn a portion of Southern Oregon’s millions of acres into roaring conflagrations. Increasingly dry and warmer years parch our forests and brush, raising fire susceptibility. What can we do?
Impact from smoke this past summer has been well documented in this newspaper. Justifiable health concerns caused anxiety and disruption as residents took protective measures against unhealthy air quality. One need only look at the millions of dollars lost in the local economy as a preview of the future as fuels continue to accumulate on our lands and we continue to warm.
The loss of hundreds of thousands of acres incurring a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars in our area in 2018 has accelerated schemes, planning, and pilot projects. There is much talk from federal legislators, the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, timber companies, the logging industry, conservationists and local entities. Unfortunately, planning and pilot projects, even if successful, all mature in the distant future. While valuable, these efforts will do little to reduce smoke in 2019, or 2020, or the year and for years after that. What about right now?
Federal land agencies are presumed to have the collective good as their goal, but that mission is often derailed by how much noise comes from special interest groups. Many good people in these agencies strive mightily, but how much smoke did you breathe in 2018? The millions of acres involved cannot be machine or hand treated promptly, if ever.
For timber companies, smoke means fire, and fire impacts the bottom line. Along with the logging industry, though dollar-driven, these entities are increasingly adopting more sustainable and sounder environmental practices for their own survival.
Cities are working hastily toward increased safety for residents, such as evacuation plans. But a lot of effort and resource goes into planning that will not have any effect until far into the future. And while partnerships between citizens, local entities and agencies have resulted in small, commendable fire reduction projects on the ground, these, too, pay off only years or decades from now, and are of infinitesimal effect considering the total amount of land involved.
Each of the aforementioned entities is agenda-driven. Not always bad, but what are the chances of smoke elimination or mitigation now if we continue as we have: trying virtually the same thing over and over and hoping for different results?
With hundreds of millions spent, firefighting has become big business. But are those millions being spent in the right way? Dry lightning ignited major fires in our area; but a few escaped being promptly extinguished. The fortuitous presence of heavy-lift helicopters at the Medford Tanker Base (central to the resource), along with other machine and personnel assets, enabled managers to put out most of the starts before they became large fires.
Consider the millions spent to fight fires in our region once those fires become established. Large fires have large perimeters, burn hot, create their own wind and can be deadly. We found that out. The end result is that we’ve spent the dollars and lost the resource also. What we’re doing isn’t working; we need a different approach and we need it fast.
If a much larger portion of the forecast millions to be spent on fire suppression in 2019 were directed at extinguishing fires immediately, as they start, while they’re small and more manageable, we would save great sums. This could be accomplished by increasing the number of heavy-lift and other helicopter assets, along with fixed-wing, at the Medford Tanker Base during fire season, along with keeping a significant personnel and equipment force immediately available. When a fire start is recognized, we need to jump on it and put it out while we can. Aerial capability is likely the key, and it is expensive. But initial strike, massive and effective, proves to be a bargain compared to thousands of tanker trips later on, and thousands of fire fighters on the line for months.
If you want smoke, then talk and plan. If you want less smoke, act now. And a good place to start is to budget for and put in place an effective first-strike aerial and personnel force. When the fire is out, there will be no smoke. Then there will be time to apply such measures as understory removal, thinning, harvesting, and prescribed burning.
Don Skillman lives in Talent.