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Jackson County is preparing for an aggressive fight against wildfires

John Craig, BLM via Wikimedia
Soda Mountain in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, Jackson County.

Forest agencies in Jackson County are gearing up for this year’s fire season, which officially begins Wednesday, June 1.

Agencies will be adding more staff and equipment this year and, hopefully, adding fire observation cameras on top of Mt. Ashland and King Mountain.

The region’s Oregon Department of Forestry team is almost fully staffed up, but they’ve had to spend more time on recruitment for seasonal firefighting positions, according to Southwest Oregon District Forester Tyler McCarty.

"Ninety percent of our staffing is seasonal, and that model has to go away," says McCarty. "We cannot retain folks and the amount of turnover we’re seeing. We have to change the model and we need to get into more permanent employees who are doing fuel reduction work in the wintertime and fighting fires for us during the summer.”

While Southern Oregon has been seeing some late rain this year, and the snowpack has returned to above-normal levels, McCarty says risk is still high.

The region is still under extreme drought conditions and officials are expecting a dry July and August.

In Jackson County, commissioners are in support of full fire suppression in the summer, when prescribed burns are no longer safe.

Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor Merv George says the goal is to reduce out-of-control wildfires.

"When you have a wildfire in the middle of the hottest times of the year — if you get a trifecta of 100 degree weather, single digit relative humidity and east winds — that fire is gonna move," he says. "And so our goal is to not have flames on our forests in the hottest times of the year."

George adds another reason for suppressing fires early on in the summer is a matter of resource availability. Jackson county competes across the country for firefighting resources and during the height of fire season it can be hard to get the equipment and staff needed to fight large forest fires.

According to Jackson County Commissioner Colleen Roberts, neighboring counties aren’t doing enough to suppress fires in the summer.

“I will say, I don’t know that our neighboring forests and counties will adopt that push from their boards and acceptance from their agencies,” Roberts says. “And because of that, we still breathe the smoke, and that’s an issue.”

Encouraging nearby counties to adopt similar early prescribed fire and later season suppression practices like those in Jackson County will help the whole region manage wildfire, she says.

After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the west coast.