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Wildfire: The time is now, Governor

The 2019 session of the Oregon Legislature opens Tuesday, and lawmakers will be crafting a budget for the next two years. That budget ought to include a real commitment to address wildfires and the smoke they generate, but if Gov. Kate Brown’s remarks in her state of the state address last week and Oregon’s track record so far are any indication, we’re not optimistic.

In her speech, Brown paid lip service to the problem.

“Wildfires have increased in intensity and severity in the past decade, threatening our culture, our communities, and our economy,” she said.

Her recommended response?

“Oregon must continue to pursue solutions that will reduce harmful emissions while creating good jobs and building a clean energy economy.”

Those are laudable goals, and over the long term will address the issue of climate change, a major driver of the wildfire problem. But we need more aggressive, short-term action. Now.

We took Brown to task when her proposed budget, rather than strengthening state firefighting capability and forest restoration efforts, merely established a committee to study the problem for a year.

Now, we can compare Oregon’s response to the wildfire crisis to that of our West Coast neighbors, Washington and California. The governors of the three states sent a letter this month to President Donald Trump asking for increased federal help.

The letter noted the investments each state already has made in managing its own wildlands. California has spent $111 million since 2017, roughly half of it on federal forestland, and has committed to spending $1 billion over the next five years. That works out to $5.06 per California resident per year. Washington has appropriated $85 million in its next two-year budget for forest health, wildland fire projects and suppression — $5.74 per capita per year.

Oregon’s contribution? The letter says that “in Oregon, firefighting costs have skyrocketed” without providing a price tag, and notes that “roughly $4 million” has been invested each biennium since 2016 “in accelerating the pace and scale of restoration on federal forest lands.” Assuming two budget cycles, that works out to 48 cents per Oregon resident per year.

Oregon probably has spent more than that on forest management, but it’s curious that in a letter from all three governors to the country’s most powerful office our state claimed such a lackluster commitment.

What do we want to see from Brown and the Legislature this session? For starters, they should consider the Oregon Department of Forestry’s wish list, detailed in a story last fall by Mail Tribune reporter Damian Mann:

  • Adopt a more aggressive approach to putting out fires among all agencies, including federal.
  • Change the culture to get fires out more quickly.
  • Add 60 full-time, mid-level management jobs to ODF to deploy resources more effectively.
  • Keep wilderness roads open for better access by fire crews.
  • Buy a special high-altitude infrared plane to find hot spots.
  • Create a better detection system to locate fires by increasing the number of mountaintop cameras from the current 12.

We expect Brown and lawmakers to follow the example of our neighbors and make a major investment in forest health. Give ODF the resources it needs to do a better job of attacking fires. Generously fund forest restoration efforts that address the fire-prone conditions that threaten our forests.

The time for action and leadership is now.