MT. VERNON – Frustrated residents lambasted Forest Service policies on fires, firewood and federal forest management at U.S. Rep Greg Walden’s Aug. 7 town hall in Mt. Vernon.
The congressman ceded the first portion of the event to Malheur National Forest officials and interagency fire management leaders to update community members on the two fires raging in the county – the Bald Sisters Fire, east of Prairie City, and the South Fork Complex, south of Dayville.
Some residents were frustrated the fires got so large and continued burning unabated.
Dave Herburger said he could see the Bald Sisters fire from the airport in John Day and felt if planes were sent earlier, they could have stopped the spread.
“I’m seventh generation here,” said Dave Herburger. “I’ve seen you guys do this for years, and I’ve had it.”
Fire officials said while the sky looked clear from John Day, the local conditions over the fire made it unsafe for aircraft. They say the planes flew when conditions improved and pilots could zero in on the fire better.
“Safety is our biggest thing,” said Brian Watts, incident commander for the Oregon Interagency Management Team 4, which was in charge of the South Fork effort until last weekend.
Jim Sproul noted the South Fork Fire “got going on a 21-mile front” that was not federal lands. He referred to management lacks on state lands as a key factor.
“This lit on state lands,” he told the Forest Service officials in the room. “They allowed it to get to this situation. It’s not you folks’ fault that this fire got to be the way it is.”
Sproul said it’s time to talk salvage: “You need to talk to Washington today.”
“I’m ahead of you by a day,” said Walden, noting he convened a roundtable with regional officials the day before, and salvage was one of the topics.
The fire update drew more general concerns about forest management and environmental constraints.
Sharon Livingston called for a common sense approach.
“If you allow cattle to eat some grass, and the loggers to log some trees, we wouldn’t be in some of these situations,” she said. “It’s time we took back our county, and our government here.”
Residents asked why the Forest Service couldn’t cut more timber to keep pace with the forest’s continual generation of new material that is fuel for large fires.
Steve Beverlin, deputy forest supervisor for the Malheur, noted the cut is on the rise as the 10-year stewardship contract swings into high gear. The harvest – 29 million board feet just a couple of years ago – grew to 55 million board feet last year.
“We’re at 65 million board feet this year, and next year we’re at 75,” he said.
Walden acknowledged the change, but added “it’s not enough.”
“I think the point is, the forests continue to grow, and die, and burn,” he said. “The question is, how do we clear the legal underbrush so we can actually get things done.”
Vernita Ediger, executive director of the Blue Mountains Forest Partners, agreed the current vulnerable state of the forest results from “years of inactive management, and you can’t change that overnight.”
However, she said the collaborative group is working for change in a way that will help the forest ecosystem and the communities. She urged people to get involved.
Dave Traylor took the opportunity to press for a public meeting on the Malheur’s firewood policies, which he feels are too restrictive and unfair to the elderly and disabled. He said the Chamber of Commerce, Public Forest Commission and County Court all are in favor offer a meeting on the topic.
Beverlin said Forest staff hadn’t had time to respond to a list of questions from Traylor, but at Walden’s urging, he said the agency could do that and then see if there’s a need for a meeting.
Others asked about road access issues and the proposed Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision, citing the current fires as proof that roads are important. They asked what will happen in future fires, if roads are decommissioned and closed.
Walden said he had talked to the new regional forester about the plan revision and the broad concerns being raised.
“I think they almost need to scrap it and start over,” he said.
As for the wildfire response, Walden noted, “Let’s not forget all the lightning strikes that got put out, the ones that don’t have names.”