Southern Oregon fires: Finding a way forward

SO. Oregon, PART 2. — On Tuesday, NBC5 News revealed state fire data showing in 2018 southern Oregon had the most human-caused fires in the state. That number, 541 fires, was more than the rest of the state combined.

NBC5 spoke with some of those affected by these fires to hear their perspective. Now we’re taking a look at what can be done to lower the numbers for future fire seasons.

Oregon Department of Forestry says fire agencies are aware of the large number of human-caused fires that occurred last year. But while every agency tries its best to notify the public, there’s only so much they can do to prevent them. The rest is up to us.

“Human-caused fires, bottom line, can be prevented,” said Lee Winslow, a Medford unit forester for ODF.

In an annual celebration for the Fourth of July, the Jackson County Expo is the destination for a fireworks display. Last year though, there was a little slip-up.

“This particular one they believe came off one of the fireboxes,” said Helen Funk, director of The Expo. Walking along the path to the nearby lake, she pointed out the scars from last year’s burn. “Not one of the mortars coming down but from one of the fireboxes that shot sideways and caught one of these trees.”

The fire burned several small areas at The Expo but was quickly under control. Now, in order for there to be fireworks again this year, The Expo is making some changes.

“We’ve gone back, we’ve been looking at all of the fire codes and we actually have to go 350 feet back off of the launch zone behind us,” said Funk, pointing to the borders of the clearing needed to be made at The Expo.

These types of proactive steps are highly encouraged by fire agencies and the fire at Red, White and Boom, while not an ODF handled-fire, still highlights state data about the risk of human-caused fires.

“We certainly don’t want to be the one that breaks the party,” said Funk.

ODF says that it believes the reason the Southwest District had more human-caused fires than the rest of the state combined last year is due to a few factors.

The first, a growing population.

“Where we see the most humans is where we see the most human start fires,” said Winslow. “So that’s along roads, right-aways, so that’s around the home you live in.”

The second, longer periods of time when fuels can easily burn. Last year, fire season ran for 150 days in southern Oregon.

Third, drier and hotter temperatures than the rest of the state which leads to a higher severity for fires. However, through all that, ODF says there is a caveat.

“If you look on a per capita, so fire per person, we’ve actually cut it in half since 1970,” said Winslow. “Historically, our number of fires per capita are going down.”

ODF’s has several reasons for this downward trend.

“Partnerships with Keep Oregon Green, with all the fire districts, with fire season declaration, public regulated use restrictions,” said Winslow. “IPL restrictions for the industrial folks that are working out there in the woods in the summer. All of those are having a positive impact.”

Still, the number of human-caused fires in 2018 were extremely high compared to the rest of the state. With 262 in the Southwest District alone, can more be done to stop them?

ODF says yes but it’s doing everything it can within its budget, which is mostly used to suppress fires not to prevent them.

“Bottom line, it’s gonna come down to the landowner taking the initiative to do that work around their home,” said Winslow.

Firefighters can’t prevent negligence and accidents will happen. But with a community effort like the one happening between the City of Central Point and The Expo, cutting back on brush ahead of fire season, progress can be made.

“We are all working on this together to make sure what we do is going to be safe,” said Funk.

As the fire season begins to creep forward, everyone will have to do their part and make sure we’re all prepared for the coming months.

If you need to know more about public use restrictions, when you can burn debris or brush piles or how to prep your house for a defensible space you can contact your local city or county fire agency.

ODF also offers support for homeowners on how they can protect themselves and their homes. The Southwest District number is (541) 664-3328. You can also click the link to reach ODF’s Firewise page.

If you haven’t read Part 1 of NBC5’s human-caused fire investigation, you can view it here.


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