Touring the fire lines Saturday, Sen. Jeff Merkley got a good dose of the smoke that many Southern Oregonians have coped with since last July.
"The west is ablaze," Merkley said. "People across the nation are aware of the fires. They're aware of the hurricanes, but also they're aware of the fires."
Merkley was briefed on the Chetco Bar fire's two major fronts — in both Brookings and Cave Junction — and drove "into the field" to view up close firefighters' efforts to protect communities.
"It's an incredibly effective partnership," said Merkley, of the local, state and federal agencies that have worked in tandem with community organizations, volunteers and legislators to tame the Chetco fire, the nation's largest wildfire, now 189,562 acres and 40 percent contained.
"Seeing it firsthand raises questions about how do we get the funds for firefighting? How do we thin the fuels?" said Merkley, who's also asking his fellow legislators in Washington D.C. a lot of questions about the future. "How can we make sure communities have the funds to recover? Not just the forests, but people too, and businesses.
"We must stop fire borrowing," he said, adding that it's always a question of resources, as funds are taken away from other programs. As a ranking member of the Senate's Appropriations Committee, Merkley explained how in recent years an annual buffer-fund of several million dollars for firefighting has helped prevent the U.S. Forest Service from having to shut down hazardous waste programs, campground and trail maintenance and preparation of timber sales. But now, Merkley wants to "get ahead of the problem."
Merkley is promoting development of a "FEMA-type structure" where the worst wildfires would be funded similar to other natural disasters such as hurricanes.
"Even if only 1 or 2 percent of the worst fires were covered this way, it would make a huge difference," he said, adding that only 25 percent of states are prone to wildfire, and the states that don't cope with the problem are resistant to the idea. However, he added that he's helped Texas and Florida get funding for their recent emergencies, so he'll be looking to get that same support in return.
"I fight for Oregon," he said.
"This isn't just a freak event. We're seeing this more and more with climate disruption," he said, connecting the dots between the "hotter and drier weather" and the region's seasonal lightning strikes.
He said western forests must be thinned to "help them become less of a danger and to make forests more resilient," but added that old-growth logging is not part of that solution.
"Why damage the most fire-resilient parts of the forest to make the forest more resilient? That doesn't make sense," Merkley said. "Old growth is inherently fire resistant. The canopy is out of reach. But at the base of second-growth forests, where trees are thicker, standing closer together, where branches are touching — we need to make those forests more resilient."
He noted the operations to thin second-growth forests "are not as commercially cost effective," thus additional resources and programs such as hazardous fuels reduction will be needed.
Oregon State Rep. David Brock Smith, who represents parts of Curry, Coos, Douglas and Josephine counties, rode along with Merkley for the day.
"I really appreciate the continued partnership in working with the senator to make sure that we not only have funding to fight fires, but also to make the policy changes we need to mitigate the fires with effective management," Brock Smith said.
— Annette McGee Rasch is a freelance writer living in Cave Junction. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.