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Wildfire response must include suppression

After nine months of work that spanned a blessedly uneventful fire season, the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response has recommended overhauling all facets of the state’s wildfire prevention, preparedness and response. To no one’s surprise, that will cost money — a lot of money.

The $4 billion, multi-year price tag primarily stems from the need to reduce fuel loads in the forests, which is, again, no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. Firefighting will also require more dollars, a reality that isn’t popular with environmentalists who argue that fire is a natural part of the forest ecosystem and should not be suppressed everywhere and in every case. Low-intensity fires that clear out underbrush and smaller trees while leaving older, larger timber standing are beneficial, but it will take time and a great deal of money to restore overgrown forests. In the meantime, fires must be aggressively fought while that work gets accomplished, to prevent the choking smoke that has robbed this region of its summers and ravaged the tourism economy for the past few years.

The council recognized that reality, as Chairman Matt Donegan said on Thursday: “It just stands to reason that in an era of climate change, in an era of fuel buildup and in an era of population growth and increased wildfire activity that we’re going to have to spend more resources suppressing fire,” he said. “There is a hope that a correlation between fuel loads and suppression, over time as we invest more in mitigation both with the wildland-urban interface and the landscape, that we can see our suppression cost decline.”

Gov. Kate Brown acknowledged the daunting prospect of putting together $4 billion in investment over several decades, “But I think it’s critically imperative that we bite off a significant chunk right now — immediately.”

We couldn’t agree more. We already have waited since last January to have the council confirm the glaringly obvious need to put resources into our forests. Now we expect to see Brown and other public officials demonstrate the leadership necessary to insist on more federal funding, more state dollars and creative public-private partnerships to do the work that needs to be done.

If legislators could manage a $1 billion investment in public education, surely they can do the same for a down payment on wildfire mitigation and response, especially when state resources are combined with federal contributions and private investments.

Southern Oregon has contributed plenty of tax dollars to transportation projects benefiting the Portland area and other parts of the state. It’s not too much to ask that all Oregonians share in the cost of addressing forest health and restoration.

It’s worth noting that an investment of that size will also create forest jobs and contribute to the state’s economy while addressing wildfire risk.

There will be battles over how much logging should be allowed as part of this work. But all sides can agree that reducing fuel loads around structures and populated areas should be a priority. And making contingency plans to help communities cope with wildfire smoke must also be part of the changes going forward.

Southern Oregon was granted a reprieve from fires and smoke this summer. That’s unlikely to repeat next year. The time to act is now.