Forest agencies respond to State Sen. Deboer’s criticism

MEDFORD, Ore.– Questions and frustrations were raised on Tuesday by State Senator Alan DeBoer in the need he sees to fix the current process federal lands have in battling forest fires. In an interview with NBC5 News, DeBoer said good work is being done but state and federal agencies should work together more to put out the fires quickly.

“We need to fix this and if we, as the United States, can’t fix a forest fire – shame on us,” he said.

Worried about how these fires are affecting lives and business in southern Oregon, DeBoer wants to find a solution.

“We want to take the politics out because I’m not too sure we’re actually putting the fires out,” he said. “I think we’re doing some forest re-cleaning up. The fires are growing together.”

While it may seem like that to some, both federal and state forest agencies say there are so many variables that affect each’s ability to put out fires quickly. With weather, topography, resident safety and firefighter safety, it makes for a complex fight. Many decisions have to be made carefully to ensure no one gets hurt and everyone can return to their homes.

“These areas are as steep and as rugged as they come,” said Merv George Jr., forest supervisor for Rogue River-Siskiyou. “So making sure to get firefighters in there and getting them in there safely – to be able to get them out should they get injured is always a chore.”

Some may say politics are to play for holding back the fight but according to both Oregon Department of Forestry and Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Service, state and federal agencies are working better together more than ever and all have one goal in mind.

“We’re doing our best, regardless of our company affiliations or what jersey we wear,” said George Jr. “We’re doing our best to get these fires out as quickly and safely as we can.”

But DeBoer also had other questions.

“Why aren’t we attacking them quicker? Why can’t the Oregon Department of Forestry go into national forest land.”

The answer, according to ODF, is because of two reasons. First, due to state statutes, ODF must prioritize the lands it protects first. Those include private, state, city, county and Bureau of Land Management land. If a fire is nowhere near any of it’s lands, the agency is bound by the statutes to remain out of the fight and protect its own lands. The only point it’s firefighters may engage is if a fire is 1/8 of a mile near ODF protected lands. At that point, it can join the fight.

But, as ODF describes, there is a way to engage earlier thanks in part to the interagency cooperation between state and federal. If a fire is seen to be moving towards ODF lands, it can then engage without having to wait for the fires to be within an 1/8 of a mile.

This has been at play at the Miles Fire where ODF is supporting USFS in suppressing the fires extension.

The second reason ODF cannot always engage though is due to limited resources and personnel. ODF says that it only has so many resources and personnel to cover it’s own lands. If it were to send help to a different agency’s fire, it could spread itself too thin and leave certain lands unprotected from potential fires.

“There is not an agency in the valley that is not doing every single thing they can to get all these fires out and that holds true to our city, county, state or federal partners,” said Melissa Cano, ODF.

It’s not that each agency isn’t trying to put out the fires, it may not always have everything it needs to help fight them. But, through all of this, each agency continues to work together in whatever way it can in what is being described as the best partnership between state and federal in southern Oregon in a long time.

“This year compared to year’s past, our relationship with our Rogue River-Siskiyou partners and our BLM partners, Medford district – they’re stronger than ever,” said Cano.

Agencies understand that there will always be doubt cast over the work that’s being done, especially when results aren’t quick and concise, and it can make the fighting effort even more tough.

“It’s really easy to try to tell people how to fire fight when they’re not actually in it and that’s something that we struggle with,” said Cano. “That’s why we try to really get that information out there as much as possible.”

With over 6,000 personnel fighting fires across southern Oregon, forest agencies say it’s no easy task but are thankful for a community that is understanding and grateful for the support as they continue to battle back the flames. While all the discussion may be happening on the sidelines, firefighters stick to their convictions and the mission at hand.

“We have multiple fires. We have a lot of smoke. We have people who’ve evacuated from their homes as we speak,” said George Jr. “So again, the mission – regardless of how we communicate it – is to try to get these fires out so people can get back to their homes safely.”


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