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Stop trusting luck to dodge smoky summers

Legislators can be annoyingly slow to take action, especially when there are significant amounts of money involved. But when the public puts pressure on lawmakers, they tend to respond.

In 2018, there were loud calls for action to address the choking effects of wildfire smoke that plagued Oregon communities and devastated tourism-dependent businesses, especially in this part of the state. The governor appointed an advisory council to develop an action plan. Then came the summer of 2019.

There was some smoke, but it did not linger for weeks or months. Life seemed almost back to normal.

It would be comforting to think that the reprieve we experienced last summer was the result of concerted action by state officials. Comforting, but wrong.

The 2019 fire season was largely the result of a wet winter and favorable weather conditions — meaning less dry lightning — not fuel reduction or other human intervention. There is no guarantee that 2020 will be as favorable, and every reason to think we could be in for another smoke-filled ordeal.

That’s why it’s imperative that the Legislature act now — not in 2021 — to begin implementing the recommendations of the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response. But some lawmakers, notably minority Republicans, are dragging their feet. The legislation is too complex, they say, to be fully understood in a short session, and too expensive to undertake in the middle of the two-year budget cycle, when state revenue has already been committed.

Many of these are the same lawmakers who walked off the job and fled the state to prevent enactment of a climate change bill they said paid too little attention to rural parts of the state. Here’s an opportunity to do a great deal for rural parts of the state.

One of two wildfire bills would embark on 15 fuel-reduction projects in high-risk areas identified by the governor’s council. That means action around vulnerable communities, including this area, and jobs for those doing the work. The money to pay for that is allocated within the bill.

The second bill would be far more expensive, and much more sweeping in scope. It would help local jurisdictions create fire management plans and new or expanded wildfire service districts, help homeowners in smoke-prone areas install air filtration systems in their homes, develop the state’s forestry workforce — there are those jobs again — and set a goal of treating 300,000 acres of forest a year to remove fuels and prevent wildfires from growing too large.

The cost is still uncertain, and requires more work from the budget committee, where the bill was sent on a party-line vote. That work needs to be done, and done now. If some elements of the bill must be put off a year, then focus on what can be done now, and do it.

Yes, this is a short session. But we got lucky last year. It’s time to stop relying on luck and take concerted action.

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