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Bill aims to thin forests, stem fires

SALEM — After a summer wildfire season that blanketed much of the West in smoke, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley introduced a bill Wednesday that would reduce the severity of wildfire by thinning forests that are crowded with too many trees and have become fuel for megafires.

The bill would create a $1 billion fund to allow the Forest Service to increase the pace and scale of wildfire reduction projects, empower federal agencies to work with local communities to plan and prepare for wildfires, and permanently reauthorize a collaborative forest restoration program that brings stakeholders together to thin forests.

"I'm hoping it'll become a bipartisan vision. Everybody who pays any attention to the forest sees these benefits," Merkley said, speaking from Washington in a conference call with reporters.

As an example of how thinning can save communities, the Oregon Democrat cited a fire that was ignited by lightning one August afternoon in 2017 near the Oregon tourist town of Sisters. It spread fast. Residents in outlying areas fled as flames marched toward their homes.

Just a few months earlier, the U.S. Forest Service and a group of locals representing forest stakeholders arranged to thin part of the overgrown forest, creating a buffer zone around Sisters.

That effort saved homes, and perhaps the community of 2,500, by slowing the fire's progress and allowing firefighters to corral it.

The work was done by the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project, composed of loggers, environmentalists, local officials, recreation outfitters and others. It was one of 23 projects in the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration program, created in 2009 by Congress and that Merkley seeks permanent support for.

His bill would allow more projects to receive funding in a given fiscal year.

"It's way past time to do a lot more on the front end to make our forests more fire resilient," Merkley said.

He hopes the Senate will take up the bill after the November elections.

Last year, 71,500 wildfires burned 10 million acres nationwide, the second-largest figure on record.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTOThe Eagle Creek wildfire burns Sept. 5, 2017, on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge near Cascade Locks. Wildfires that have blackened more than thousands of square miles across the American West have also ignited calls, including from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, for thinning of forests that have become so choked with trees that they're at "powder keg levels."