By Damian Mann

(Medford) Mail Tribune

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, has faulted the federal response to wildfires that have devastated Southern Oregon’s economy, jeopardized health and prompted an outcry from residents there over what they believe is a “let-it-burn” philosophy.

“I don’t know if there’s a policy like that, but I hear it enough,” Walden said Friday to about 400 people at a town hall at Central Medford High. “They’ve got to get on them quicker.”

Walden is on a tour through his large congressional district, which stretches from Southern to Eastern Oregon. He was in Central Oregon over the weekend.

Walden endorsed the Oregon Department of Forestry’s record for quick fire response. He noted that although an equal number of Oregon fires in 2017 started on federal and state land, 95 percent of the total acreage burned was on federal land.

He said he’s had talks with federal forest officials about adopting similar policies to Oregon’s.

Federal officials also spend more effort putting out fires and less effort thinning forests, which would reduce the wildfire danger in the summer, Walden said.

“More than half the Forest Service budget goes to fighting fires,” he said. “It’s very frustrating.”

Walden heard firsthand the impact wildfires are having on the economy.

“What are you doing to help this?” said Therese ­MacGregor, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Pro West in Medford. She said people are selling houses and moving to other areas, and when the smoke hits during the summer, people don’t buy houses. “They’re just moving away.”

MacGregor said federal officials don’t seem concerned about putting fires out during the summer.

“They let it burn,” she said.

Walden said other areas of the West are also suffering from smoke issues, and that it’s a problem that affects a bigger area than Southern Oregon.

He said he’s been raising concerns that the federal government’s response doesn’t take into account the toll on the region.

“The human health implications are awful,” he said.

Walden told the audience it has been difficult getting lawmakers in Washington to realize the implications of wildfires on the West Coast and how the climate here is so different from the East Coast.

“They don’t understand lightning without rain,” he said.

Over the summer, Walden had Southern Oregon residents send him photos of air conditioning filters, including respirator filters, that were blackened by smoke, to show other lawmakers how serious a health threat the region faced.

Other residents asked Walden how he stood on climate change, which many said contributed to our wildfire woes. “I believe the science that says it’s real,” he said.

Walden touted the increased use of natural gas as opposed to coal to help reduce carbon dioxide levels.

“It’s worse,” fired back Jacksonville resident Alan Journet.

Walden responded, “No, it’s not.”

Embracing other energy sources that don’t add carbon dioxide, Walden said he thinks the country could greatly increase the amount of hydroelectric power out of existing dams.

He said one possible project in Klamath County has the potential to produce power for 600,000 homes.

Using innovation to lead the country away from its reliance on fossil fuels is a major goal, Walden said, but only if it makes sense.

“We can’t just pull the plug on baseload power,” he said. “What can we do without destroying our economy?”

Walden said thinning forests to help curtail wildfires would help reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.

He cited a statistic that indicated 68 million tons of carbon dioxide were released in 2018 from California’s wildfires, equating to roughly a year’s worth of electricity in that state. “That’s why I’ve advocated for more aggressive thinning,” he said.

On Friday, Walden fielded questions on topics other than climate change and wildfires, particularly about President Donald Trump.

“What are you doing to deal with our belligerent, over-­aggressive chief executive?” said Daniel Guy, with Rogue Valley Veterans for Peace.

“I have a great working relationship with our president and vice president,” Walden said. “When I disagree, I express it.”

He said he disagreed with the president recently because Trump didn’t want to maintain economic sanctions against Russian oligarchs.

“I try to work with people without casting stones,” Walden said.