Southwest Oregon sees ‘substantial investment in fire safety’
ASHLAND — The Oregon Department of Forestry announced this week the awarding of $20 million in grants authorized by Senate Bill 762 for nine landscape-scale projects to reduce wildfire risk on forestland and rangeland across ownership boundaries.
Among recipients, Lomakatsi Restoration Project and the city of Ashland are ramping up the scale of an all-lands treatment approach.
The Landscape Resiliency Program, established by SB 762 under the state’s $220 million wildfire risk reduction package, distributed funding Wednesday to nine projects led by nonprofits and community partners to reduce hazardous fuels on more than 156,000 acres at highest risk for catastrophic wildfire in the state, according to an ODF press release. The grant program is slated to generate more than $15 million in matching funds.
A $3.5 million grant to the West Bear All-Lands Restoration Project builds on $2.6 million secured through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Regional Conservation Partnership Program in April 2021, and a grant for hazardous fuels reduction through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Lomakatsi Executive Director Marko Bey.
The West Bear All-Lands project focuses on reducing wildfire risk and improving ecological health from west of Medford to the Jacksonville foothills.
With 2,000 acres opened up through SB 762, Lomakatsi can manage the treatment of up to 30% of the 27,000-acre footprint in strategic locations such as ridgelines, and ingress and egress routes, Bey said. FEMA money covers defensible space work around residential zones, and served as the “anchor” for other funding expanding the project area, he said.
Bey attributed success securing the most recent grant to a “thriving partnership, very highly functioning team,” and “significant co-investment from private philanthropic dollars” through Sustainable Northwest.
“What the SB 762 legislation and funding is looking to do is invest in shovel-ready projects,” Bey said. “We’re very shovel-ready, we have a thriving partnership, we have agreements in place, we have contracts with service providers that do forestry, and then we have the Lomakatsi technical team of our ecologists, our foresters and our crews that are all-hands-on-deck on this project right now.”
Pete Caligiuri, Oregon forest strategy director for The Nature Conservancy, served on the work group that evaluated landscape resiliency project proposals, among a “diverse cross-section of stakeholders,” including state, federal, municipal, county and nonprofit representatives, Caligiuri said.
“We’re really grateful that champions in the Legislature took the time and seized the opportunity to take a comprehensive look at wildfire policy in Oregon,” Caligiuri said. “Senate Bill 762 really represents that multi-pronged approach, a comprehensive or holistic approach, to thinking about how we create resilient landscapes and fire-adapted communities … and set the stage for being better prepared across the board ecologically and from a human community perspective.”
Project proposals with a strong collaborative foundation were considered most likely to be successful delivering near-term benefits, as well as those that clearly articulated a “landscape scale” approach in the project area to achieve cross-boundary outcomes, Caligiuri said.
Project criteria included a clear set of proposed activities, timeline for implementation, defined monitoring goals to track and report progress over the course of the biennium, and linkage to other community planning efforts and diverse stakeholder organizations, he said.
The Nature Conservancy and partners will provide after-action input on the program rollout, with the intention of learning from and improving the process to encourage continuous funding beyond this biennium, Caligiuri said.
The Pacific Northwest Quantitative Wildfire Risk Assessment guided determination of “highest risk” areas and identifying opportunities for immediate impact during the proposal evaluation process, Caligiuri said.
“We were focused in the near term on how can we reduce wildfire risk in these high priority places around the state, while in the longer term starting to move toward building resilient landscapes for the future, and using the state’s investment, this $20 million that came through SB 762, as effectively as possible toward those two broad goals,” he said.
In a second grant through the Landscape Resiliency Program, Lomakatsi secured about $700,000 to cut, pile and burn across 900 acres in the Upper Applegate Watershed, building on another large investment area, Bey said.
The SB 762 funding enables Lomakatsi to push surface and ladder fuels work to the forefront to meet the June 30, 2023, project completion deadline, then to use other funding to subsidize moving timber longer-term, Bey said.
The Upper Applegate Watershed project includes a commercial ecological thinning element administered through a master stewardship agreement with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, in addition to noncommercial surface and ladder fuels work, Bey said.
The agreement gives the nonprofit the authority to remove timber from the forest and send it to a mill, “but it’s ‘upside down’ — products will not pay for the operation,” Bey said. “Therefore we have to subsidize that with additional funding.”
“This really helps us accomplish a project that wouldn't pay its way out of the woods,” he said. “The way it does that is through the mix of all these dollars.”
With funding expanding capacity and federal agencies leaning on community-based organizations for the work, Lomakatsi plans to grow by about 20 staff — 11 in programs/technical positions and the remainder on crews. Bey said with increased capacity comes a “huge opportunity” for the for-profit sector, with funds set aside for subcontracts with local forestry outfits.
After a dry winter and expected transition to wildfire response by June, project recipients face limited opportunities to burn.
“It’s a short window that’s going to require us to put a lot of dollars on the ground, a lot of acres treated, so in order to meet that need, we have been scaling strategically,” Bey said.
Lomakatsi projects focus on establishing tactical areas for fire suppression and wildfire response, treating routes in the wildland-urban interface and along strategic ridgelines, improving opportunities for maintenance and prescribed fire, and working toward a strong ecological result with hardwood species diversity, Bey said.
A study of more than 22,000 fires by Oregon State University researchers found that communities’ main source of exposure to wildfire risk was not in national forests, but rather in areas with higher densities of roads and people, with fires progressing into forests.
Fires crossing jurisdictional boundaries — primarily caused by people on private property — consumed more than 17 million acres during the study period of 1992-2019, and about half of the burned area was U.S. Forest Service-administered land. The study covered nearly 141 million acres across 11 states, including 74 national forests.
Long term fire management requires “allowing some fires or portions of fires to burn to provide risk reduction and ecological benefits, identifying and preparing locations where suppression is likely to be effective, and developing strategies to rapidly distribute resources to where they are most needed and can do the most good,” according to Chris Dunn with the OSU College of Forestry.
Southwest Oregon emerged from the landscape resiliency project proposal period with three major projects funded — all within the area where fires are most likely to affect Ashland and neighboring communities, said Ashland Wildfire Division Chief Chris Chambers.
“This award is a huge benefit to Ashland and everywhere in between out to the Applegate, to the tune of $4.7 million over the next year and a half,” Chambers said. “That’s a substantial investment in fire safety in our landscapes.”
Ashland Fire & Rescue’s $445,500 award through SB 762 is expected to ramp up the “pace and scale” of proactive fire management through June 2023.
The money is set aside for 123 acres of fuel breaks on private lands in city limits and adjacent to the Ashland watershed, and 485 acres of controlled underburning on Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest land in the watershed and city, Ashland parks land and and private land — collectively dubbed the Ashland Forest All-Lands Resiliency strategy. Private landowners will pay one-quarter of project costs.
“ODF funding complements the city’s annual contributions via a water bill surcharge that has generated revenue dedicated to wildfire safety staffing and projects like controlled burning since 2015,” according to Chambers.
SB 762 builds on emergency funding offered in the last state biennium that helped establish a pilot project combining fire danger reduction work in the forests and in the city around neighborhoods, Chambers said.
With the foundation of decades of work going back to 1992 when Ashland City Council passed the first Ashland Forest Plan and 11 years in the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project, the newest funding allows forest managers to prioritize for the near-term and plan ahead, he said.
About 13,000 acres treated in the AFR project will require maintenance, including brush cutting and low-intensity burns to ecologically benefit a fire-adapted forest, Chambers said.
“That’s really the cornerstone of our application and our award under this program: Putting good fire back on the ground,” Chambers said.
With the SB 762 infusion, crews are less limited by funding and more by the weather as they work toward a 10-year maintenance cycle, Chambers said, which necessitates treatment and underburning (the final step), across more than 1,000 acres annually.
“That’s really where the rubber hits the road in terms of fire safety from a fire coming from outside of town and impacting the community, or starting in the community and moving into the watershed, either way,” Chambers said. “(Underburning) is going to have a huge impact on our ability to manage a summer wildfire.”
SB 762 funds also open more opportunities to recruit private landowners for prescribed burning and demonstration projects, he said.
As communities witness thousands to millions of acres burned each year, Chambers emphasized the need to plan at the same scale as wildfire has impacted landscapes.
“The power in all these awards together is connecting this whole landscape all the way from the Siskiyou Summit out through Phoenix, Talent, Jacksonville and around the corner up into the Applegate,” Chambers said. “That’s really the future of what we need in fire management and forest management is these broad landscapes with networks of fuel reduction areas and more open, restored healthy forests that can be resilient to wildfire.”
The nine projects approved through the landscape resiliency program include: Lower Rogue Oak Resiliency Project, Ashland Forest All-lands Restoration, Wasco County Forest Resilience Project, Southeast Oregon Wildfire Resiliency Project, Laurel Butte Landscape Resiliency Project, Landscape Resilience in the Upper Applegate Watershed, Central Oregon Shared Stewardship Landscape Resiliency Project, West Bear All-lands Restoration and Upper John Day Valley Landscape Resiliency Project.
Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at email@example.com or 541-776-4497.