Forest Service outlines summer fire plans, long-term repairs

Willamette National Forest staff on Tuesday morning, March 21, told Linn County commissioners Roger Nyquist and Will Tucker that the U.S. Forest Service was gearing up for heightened wildfire protections and will also begin an extensive, $78 million multi-year fire-damage recovery program.

Commissioner Sherrie Sprenger was not present at the meeting.

Forest Supervisor Dave Warnack introduced Duane Bishop, Deputy Forest Supervisor; Michelle King, Detroit District Ranger; Nikki Swanson, Sweet Home District Ranger; Christ Donaldson, Deputy Fire staff; and Brett Blundon, Disaster Recovery Team lead.

According to Blundon, 21% of the Willamette National Forest has been affected by wildfires between 2020 and 2022. That breaks down to 196,000 acres in 2020, 42,000 in 2021 and 127,000 in 2022 for a total of 365,000 acres.

Blundon said that Congress approved $1 billion for forest recovery programs, and Region 6 would receive $250 million due to extensive recent wildfires.

The Willamette National Forest team compiled a list of projects totaling more than $100 million, and $78,640,000 was approved.

Priorities are as follows:

Public safety and access: $43.8 million to remove danger trees within one tree height of roads; treat weeds; reconstruct fire-damaged roads; replace and increase culvert sizes to accommodate increased flows due to fires.

♦ Infrastructure: $21.1 million, which includes replacing fire-destroyed housing at the Detroit Ranger District.

♦ Reforestation and planting severely burned areas: $8.4 million

♦ Restoration: $1.47 million

♦ Additional asset surveys of all lands: $515,000

♦ Additional temporary staffing: $3.27 million. All permanent staff has been assigned and offers have been made to temporary staff.

Priority recovery projects include:

♦ Holiday Farm Fire roads risk reduction: $5.2 million

♦ Beachie Creek/Lionshead fires roads risk reduction: $20 million

♦ Gales Fire roads risk reduction: $7 million

♦ Detroit housing reconstruction: $9 million

♦ McKenzie River priority road reconstruction: $5 million.

Donaldson said the Willamette National Forest does not have a “let it burn” policy in wilderness areas, but firefighting could be difficult due to terrain issues. He added that forest managers have traditionally focused on post-time sale slash reduction as a top fuels management priority. They are now placing a higher priority on fuels reductions as a whole, identifying potential fire-risk areas early.

According to Donaldson, the U.S. Forest Service has been working closely with Giustina Resources and Cascade Timber Consulting, which have timber lands adjacent to wilderness areas. The Forest Service is committed to a multi-year road improvement program in those areas east of Sweet Home.

Donaldson said three 20-person fire teams will be in the area this summer, expanding to 25-person teams the following summer. An interagency fire school will be held in Sweet Home along with the Oregon Department of Forestry. Aviation resources such as helicopters and airplanes won’t be stationed locally, but will be on call.

Commissioner Nyquist said the Forest Service needs to make timber harvesting a higher priority to both reduce fire opportunities and to create revenues for both Forest Service programs and federal-payment-reliant counties.

“The National Forests are growing fuels faster than harvesting them,” he said. “In sports, that’s called playing from behind all of the time. This needs to be reviewed vigorously internally.”

Commissioner Tucker said he wanted to tour forest lands with staff. He was also concerned that aircraft were not being staged locally.

“Fire season starts earlier in California and that becomes a priority,” he said.

Tucker also pointed out that the Freres family in the Santiam Canyon lost a majority of their timber lands and have already harvested what they could and replanted, while the Forest Service was just starting, nearly three years after the fires.

He emphasized that he believed all fires should be attacked as quickly as possible during fire season.

Donaldson said a contract for the Weyerhaeuser helicopter has been renewed.

In other business, the commissioners:

♦ Were informed by Dr. William Muth of 320 confirmed COVID-19 cases in February and one death of a person more than 100 years old whose death could be attributed to it. There were 56 births – 28 boys and 28 girls – and 111 deaths.

♦ Were told by Shane Sanderson of Environmental Health that his staff inspected 54 food-service facilities last month and 376 so far this year.

♦ Appointed David Alderman and Debra Haile to the Linn County Solid Waste Advisory Committee.

♦ Approved hiring Corrections Deputy Lori Frenzel to work two days per week at the jail after her March 31 retirement.

♦ Learned from Linn County Expo Center Director Kris Barnes that the facility brought in more than $90,000 in fees last month. He said April also looked strong, with a horse-oriented event attracting more than 7,000 guests.

♦ Approved the sale of 28 acres of landlocked property near Halsey to Tom and Marci Herndon for $20,000. The two parcels, about 12 and 16 acres each, were foreclosed upon by the county in lieu of taxes in the 1930s and 1969.

♦ Approved a contract with Clear Ballot Group for the county’s vote-by-mail system administered by Linn County Clerk Steve Druckenmiller.

♦ Heard a request from Albany resident Bret Kizer that Linn County join other Oregon counties wishing to become part of what is called the “Greater Idaho” movement, which seeks to incorporate about 13 Oregon counties, or 63% of the state’s landmass and 9% of its population, within Idaho’s borders.

– Alex Paul, Linn County Communications Officer