Lawmakers call for more resources as wildfire season looms

Wildfires

SALEM, Ore. (OREGON CAPITAL BUREAU) — Saturday marked the official start of Oregon’s wildfire season, but without new resources the state is only incrementally more prepared to combat fire this summer than in past years.

During consecutive summers, fire ripped through iconic landscapes, endangered communities and choked towns with blankets of smoke. The state has already seen more than 1,000 acres burn this year.

In a winter where priorities abound, wildfire preparedness has not come out a winner. “In this biennium, we need a lifeline for our communities,” said state Rep. Pam Marsh, R-Ashland. Marsh’s district was ablaze through much of the summer, with fire coming dangerously close to structures.

In addition to putting the community in danger, wildfires had massive economic impacts. The famous Shakespeare festival had to cancel events, costing it an estimated $2 million.

Firefighters checked the wildfires, Marsh said, but the scorched town of Paradise, Calif., is a reminder that Ashland may not always be so lucky.

Marsh said that’s why Gov. Kate Brown’s proposed budget “set off” her constituents. It included resources to staff a wildfire council, which Brown created through executive action this winter, but that council won’t have any impact until the fall at the earliest. Then, funding would still need to be acquired to carry out recommendations.

Brown proposed no additional funding to bolster the state’s response to this summer’s fires. “It didn’t have any immediate relief for the community,” Marsh said. “What it had was a wildfire council. People were upset that there seemed to be long-term thinking but nothing to provide something for this season.”

Stopgap measure

Analysts say this summer's wildfire season could be nastier than usual. (Courtesy photo via Pamplin Media)

Despite a strong snowpack, a state analysis predicts another above average fire season. It’s what’s referred to as “the new normal.” That’s why Marsh is working to get a $6.8 million for wildfire mitigation and suppression before the 2019 legislative session adjourns. The package would give the Oregon Department of Forestry more resources to fight fire, help communities implement smoke shelters to shield vulnerable people when heavy smoke billows into town and provide more resources to the front lines to stop fires from growing.

The plan is endorsed by Reps. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, Jack Zina, R-Bend, Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, Kim Wallan, R-Medford, Tiffany Mitchell, D-Astoria, Anna Williams, D-Hood River, Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, Gary Leif, R-Roseburg, Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, Cheri Helt, R-Bend and Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland.

Rep. Salinas said this to KOIN 6 News:  “I support the forest fire resilience and investment package because the focus is on investments that can prepare communities, potentially prevent wildfires and certainly respond to forest fires in a more upstream, proactive manner. This is a serious public health issue and it doesn’t really matter if you live in the Portland metro area, Southern Oregon or east of the Cascades—we are all impacted by a wildfire season that now starts in March and doesn’t end until November. Coupled with a strong cap and invest package to address climate, this $6.8 million funding request can help Oregon get ahead of wildfire devastation.”

It’s a stopgap measure, Marsh said, but a much needed one. Marsh supports Brown’s fire council, which she hopes will push the state to a more proactive approach that includes better land management, prescribed burns and more resources.

ODF responded to KOIN 6 News with the following statement: “ODF is directly involved and engaged with Gov. Brown’s Wildfire Response Council, working with fellow Council members to evaluate the sustainability of Oregon’s current model for wildfire prevention, preparedness and response to provide recommendations to strengthen, improve or replace existing systems. We look forward to the Council’s recommendations this fall.”

“We are coming into this session having just experienced the two most expensive fire seasons in our state’s history,” Marsh said. Last summer’s wildfire season cost $514 million.

Marsh is hoping to get the money in June through agency budgets rather than a bill. She has wide support, but she’s lacking an endorsement from Brown. Brown has signaled to lawmakers that she wants the council to come up with recommendations first, then get money.

It’s what Evans, chair of the House Veterans and Emergency Preparedness Committee, called a “measure twice, cut once,” approach. Evans is also pushing a proposal. He introduced HB 3439, which seeks to simplify the state disaster response process. It would also make it easier to make an emergency declaration. Evans wants dedicated personnel assigned to vulnerable fire areas so they can strike as soon as the sparks do.

“We made decisions through land use, and quite frankly market economics, that allowed for people to build in areas where there are great views,” Evans said. “Unfortunately, places where there’s a great view are also places fire wants to go to most.”

At Brown’s request, Evans isn’t pursuing his legislation, but intends to bring the concept up next session. “There were a lot of other issues that were on her table, and she wanted to give this appropriate time and study,” Evans said. “It was a proposal that was new to her.”

Reorganizing in a ‘rational way’

When asked about where her priorities lie, Brown said the state is more prepared going into this season than last. She said the state is better aligned with the federal firefighting resources.. Oregon will have access to new infrared technology to see through thick smoke.

But Brown said she wants to see more thinning and prescriptive burns on federal lands, steps. She can’t directly act on. “We are going to continue to advocate — I am going to continue to work with my governors, Republican and Democrat in the West — to continue to push for more resources on the local level,” Brown said.

Brown’s natural resources policy adviser, Jason Miner, said two National Guard battalions in Oregon are trained for the season with a third coming. The Forestry Department is training 600 seasonal firefighters, and has 230 more on the way.

Miner said the wildfire council would pursue long-term changes as well. Marsh and Evans say constituents are uneasy after watching the state burn year after year. “I don’t want to get in the way of what the governor is trying to do with her council,” Evans said. “That said, I’m very committed to reorganizing, in a rational way, our entire emergency management delivery system. What we have right now made sense 20 years ago. It doesn’t make sense for tomorrow, and it really warrants our attention.”

The Oregon Capital Bureau is a KOIN 6 News media partner

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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