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Merkley, Brown tout wildfire investments; say more is needed

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Gov Kate Brown fist bumps firefighters near Butte Falls Thursday.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley talks about forest management with Gov. Kate Brown, far right, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior Rachel Taylor Thursday near Butte Falls.

BUTTE FALLS — Top state and federal officials touted recently passed $1.5 billion legislation for a wide variety of wildfire repair and recovery programs, but acknowledged more is needed.

U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, Gov. Kate Brown and key members of the U.S. Department of Interior toured parts of Eagle Point and Butte Falls Thursday to see progress in the 13 months since the South Obenchain fire and touted the need for expanded forest management programs even beyond what the federal government had authorized Sept. 30.

At a press conference off Butte Falls Highway, Merkley touched on the destruction of the South Obenchain fire, which burned more than 30,000 acres and destroyed dozens of homes.

“And it was one of the tiny fires,” he said.

Citing reports from Oregon’s new Wildfire Programs Director Doug Grafe showing a “steady expansion” of fire over the past three decades, Merkley called the 2020 Labor Day fires — including the Almeda fire that burned nearly 2,500 homes from north Ashland to south Medford — an “extraordinary event,” but acknowledged they’re growing more common.

Merkley, now chairman of the Senate Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriates Subcommittee, highlighted his role in advocating for states impacted by wildfire in the disaster relief bill that passed both chambers of Congress, according to a Sept. 30 release from Merkley’s office.

The $1.545 billion legislation includes roughly $230 million for hazardous fuels reduction such as prescribed burning. He wants prescribed burning in the wildland-urban interface — where homes can potentially be threatened — to take priority.

“I’ve notice a huge shift in the attitudes of prescribed burns over the past 10 years,” he said.

Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars for prescribed burning, Merkley said much more is needed.

“No matter how much work we do on the front end, we’re going to have bigger, more terrifying fires,” Merkley said.

Gov. Brown, who stood beside the senator during the press conference, applauded Merkley’s statements about fuel reduction programs.

He described the federal funding — which will also turn roughly 500 part-time firefighter positions into year-round full-time jobs — as a key step toward addressing a new era.

“It’s very clear we’re fighting fires of a new age ... using tools of the last century,” Brown said.

Brown praised the investments in more modern tools and “more boots on the ground,” but said that, “It’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we need.”

Brown also pledged her continued support to the victims of the Labor Day fires, including those still displaced 13 months after the Almeda and South Obenchain fires.

“We are still working as quickly as we can to rehouse these folks, but it’s not happening fast enough,” she said, adding that she and her team are “absolutely committed to working as quickly as we can to get these families into permanent housing.”

“These families are the heart and soul of our economy, our communities, our culture, and they deserve warm, dry, safe and stable housing,” Brown said.

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.