Movement is slow to improve Oregon’s response to wildfires

A field burns through a ranch during the 2015 fire season (Courtesy Oregon Department of Forestry)

SALEM — 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. 

Over 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.”

A firefighter works through a charred stump during the 2015 fire season. (Courtesy Oregon Department of Forestry)

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 representatives David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, Jack Zika, R-Bend, Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, Kim Wallan, R-Medford, Tiffiny 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. 

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.

“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 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. 

A plane drops retardant on the Canyon Creek Fire in 2015. (Courtesy Oregon Department of Forestry)

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.”

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 advisor, Jason Miner, said there are two National Guard battalions in Oregon 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.”

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251. Wieber is a reporter for Salem Reporter who works for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, the Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.

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