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Oregon must act now on wildfire

The Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response spent the better part of a year looking at wildfire prevention, firefighting and forest health and came up with an ambitious plan to address the issue. Now some lawmakers, county officials and others want to slam on the brakes. On this one, we’re with Gov. Kate Brown, who told a Senate committee this week, “Doing nothing is not an option.”

After two smoke-filled summers taxed the economic health of Southern Oregon and the physical health of its residents, we were harshly critical of Brown for waiting through another fire season before presenting a plan to address the threat of wildfire. Last summer, we got lucky, and fire season was relatively uneventful. But there is no guarantee that luck will hold another year, and chances are it won’t.

Brown’s Wildfire Council did its job and produced a thorough report calling for a wide range of steps to address wildfire risk and boost the state’s ability to combat fires. The result is Senate Bill 1536, which calls for new building codes, land-use planning and mapping high-risk areas. The legislation also proposes treatment of forest debris, measures to protect the public from the health effects of wildfire smoke and enhanced forest protection efforts.

Sen. Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. of Grants Pass, who knows as well as anyone the price this region has paid from wildfires, is wringing his hands and saying the state just can’t afford to take these steps.

“This is a big state, it’s got a lot of fuels from one side to the other, but we’re only 4.3 million people,” he said. “We’re not California, so we’re stuck in this dilemma of having a lot of things we want, but what can we afford?”

Many Oregonians would say, “thank God we’re not California” — where raging wildfires have destroyed entire communities and killed many residents in recent fire seasons. But California responded to those tragedies by finding money to take action immediately.

Will it take that kind of catastrophe to get Oregon lawmakers to do what needs to be done? It’s already been more than a year since the wildfire council was created. This state dare not wait another year to start responding to the threat.

And complaining about the cost ignores the price paid to fight fires in the absence of prevention efforts. Public agencies spent a record $530 million battling fires in Oregon in 2018. That’s more than twice the $200 million a year the wildfire council says should be spent over the next two decades to reduce fire risk.

Is it possible some of the recommended actions can be put off while others are aggressively implemented now? That’s what legislators are supposed to do: Hammer out agreements where possible and do what can be done immediately.

Of course, that will require minority Republicans, led by Baertschiger, to stay at their desks and work with their colleagues to pass legislation, not walk out and refuse to cooperate as they did last session.

The walkout came in response to climate change legislation, not wildfire mitigation. But a modified cap-and-trade bill is back this year, and Republicans have not ruled out another boycott. That would prevent action on all legislation.

Deschutes County commissioners traveled to Salem to raise concerns about plans to treat overgrown forests, arguing that much of that forest is federal land, over which the state has no say. All the more reason for all Oregon public officials to get behind this legislation and put pressure on Congress and the administration to work alongside the state to pursue fuel-reduction projects that are ready to go but are awaiting funding.

And all the more reason for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to start attacking this problem now, not a year from now.