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Report: The price to protect Southern Oregon

Oregon lawmakers are poised to start tackling a $4 billion effort to dramatically reduce wildfire threat in this state.

Armed with a report detailing steps needed to protect communities from disasters that have befallen California, local legislators and Gov. Kate Brown have signaled they’re about to put their money where their mouth is.

“Anybody who said it’s going to be cheap hasn’t been paying attention,” said Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland. “If we don’t think this is essential, we haven’t been paying attention. This is a must.”

Golden, chairman of the newly created Senate Committee on Wildfire Prevention and Recovery, anticipates submitting two to three bills during the short legislative session to specifically deal with wildfires.

Gov. Kate Brown’s office indicated she will be backing the commitment of up to $200 million through a combination of state, private and federal dollars.

Brown’s stance is an outgrowth of a wildfire report that concluded the state needs to invest $4 billion for forest-thinning projects, change land-use laws for communities next to woodlands and beef up fire protection to protect urban areas.

Southern Oregon has been identified as having the most communities in the state at risk from the kind of wildfires that swept through the Northern California cities of Paradise, Santa Rosa and Redding.

The Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response issued a report this month that concluded the economic costs to Oregon from wildfires far exceeds the estimated $4 billion investment required to better protect communities.

In 2018, firefighting efforts cost the state $500 million, but the economic losses are likely 11 times that amount, according to the report. These other costs include property and infrastructure damage, health problems, lost economic activity — including taxes — and harm to the environment.

The report concludes that the real cost to Oregon likely is several billion dollars for every year that Oregon struggles through a prolonged fire season.

Golden said he’ll be working closely with the governor’s office to draft bills focused on wildfire prevention, including thinning projects around many Southern Oregon communities that have been identified as having the greatest risk.

“We know that we need a big investment in the woods,” he said.

Ashland, Medford, Jacksonville and Merlin are all considered vulnerable, and given the right weather conditions, they could be overrun by flames.

Golden said Oregon is a relatively small state with a modest budget, so it will be looking to partner with federal agencies and private companies

“If you look at the fires that devastated Paradise, Redding and Santa Rosa, it was a hard hit on the insurance industry,” Golden said. As a result, he hopes insurance companies join forces with the state to tackle the problem.

Unlike California, Oregon doesn’t appear to have the same issues with an aging electric utility. In California, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is in bankruptcy after the company’s equipment was found to be the source of a number of wildfires that destroyed communities.

Golden said Pacific Power has a different kind of system that can turn power off in smaller areas to minimize fire risk. PG&E has had rolling blackouts this fall that affect millions of Californians.

In the short term, Golden said he wants quick action to thin forests, similar to the efforts going on in the Ashland watershed, the Applegate and other communities in Northern California and Oregon.

“We need some boots on the ground reducing the fuel load, especially before the 2020 fire season,” he said.

Jason Miner, the governor’s natural resources policy director, said the wildfire report underscores the need to spend money now in order to avoid future wildfires that would prove economically disastrous for the state.

“It’s not unrealistic to say in the tens of billions of dollars,” he said.

Over the next two years, the governor is looking at spending $100 million to $200 million, which would create more fire-resistant landscapes around communities, improve land-use laws to improve buildings near wildfire zones and improve wildfire response, particularly to protect neighborhoods near wooded areas.

But the money will not just come from Oregon.

“We’ll be challenging the federal government to invest as well,” he said. “The Forest Service has long been disinvesting in Oregon.”

Miner said there is a link between climate change and the wildfires that have plagued the West Coast and other countries around the world.

He said Brown’s priority is climate change, and the wildfire threat is clearly linked to climate change.

Other interim solutions to help communities could include money for air filtration systems to help vulnerable populations, Miner said. Southern Oregon endured about four months of smoke during the summer of 2018, crippling local business and endangering those with health problems.

Local communities have taken some steps to address some of the issues brought up in the wildfire report.

The city of Medford recently adopted stricter building codes on new construction for housing built near wildfire zones, though some have argued the new codes don’t apply to existing houses that might be more vulnerable to flying embers.

Since thinning forests is a major concern in protecting communities next to wildland areas, legislators are looking to organizations such as Lomakatsi Restoration Project, which has treated 12,000 acres of forest in the roughly 50,000-acre Ashland watershed.

Shane Jimerfield, Lomakatsi’s program director, said residents of Ashland were wary when his organization began thinning projects some 25 years ago in areas traversed by hikers and bikers. As a result, Lomakatsi attempts to clear out enough trees and vegetation to slow a fire down, but not enough to ruin the aesthetics of the landscape.

While the thinning has stood up to some lightning strikes and small fires, it’s still unknown how it would stand up to a fire like the one that destroyed the Paradise.

“Under the right conditions, all bets are potentially off,” he said.

Still, working with fire officials and others, Jimerfield thinks there has been enough work in the watershed to give fire crews a fighting chance if we get hit with a big wildfire. He said the thinned forests slow a fire down, making it easier for fire crews to contain it.

The thinning projects take place on public and private lands, usually on steep slopes. Recently, a 10-man Lomakatski crew carried chainsaws up steep slopes and began the back-breaking work of thinning 60 acres of private land that has a mix of scrub oak, madrone, manzanita, pine and other vegetation. The rugged hillsides south of Ashland were last hit by fire in the 1940s.

Trees are marked with various colored ribbons to indicate whether they should be saved or cut down.

“To a large extent, we try to mimic what fire would have done to the landscape,” Jimerfield said.

After the vegetation is cut, it’s piled up and later burned. Once an area is thinned, crews come back occasionally and start ground fires to clear out vegetation and allow the trees that have been saved to grow taller. While some of the timber has been sold, much of the vegetation cut down has little value to timber companies.

Jimerfield said 50 people work at Lomakatsi, and the organization already has multiple areas in Oregon and California where it is thinning forests.

He said the organization could ramp up to take on more thinning projects, but that would require a longterm financial commitment from the state.

In the last legislative session, Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, failed to get traction on a bill that would have provided $6.8 million to thin forests around Southern Oregon communities.

She said the state, armed with the wildfire report, appears ready to start tackling these kinds of issues and will be developing projects to better defend the area.

She said some of the communities that have been identified as the most vulnerable to wildfire, including Medford, Ashland, Merlin and Cave Junction, are the most logical places to start. Most communities in Southern Oregon are vulnerable to wildfires.

Another important issue will be fire suppression itself and how to handle multiple fires burning throughout the state.

Last summer, Southern Oregon had a couple of fires that were put out within days, but fire crews also weren’t fighting for resources, Marsh said.

She said there will likely be a lot of bills discussed in the short session to kick-start some of the proposals that came out of the wildfire report, including increasing the money available for firefighting crews.

“There will be a significant ask for pilot projects,” she said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @reporterDM.

Lomakatsi worker Anthony Lopez works on clearing trees{ } Friday on private property near the Ashland watershed.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune