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Oregon lawmakers boost wildfire funds as potentially big season nears

by Monica Samayoa, Oregon Public Broadcasting |

The Oregon Legislature’s Emergency Board approved a spending increase Thursday for wildfires in anticipation of what could be an early and challenging season.

The Oregon Department of Forestry’s readiness and preparedness budget will now be approximately $55.6 million for the 2020 wildfire season. The board’s increase of $3.6 million will be used for aviation and ground resources to help fight wildfires.

Before the vote, Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, warned that the state does not have a sustainable funding source for fighting fires – a situation made worse by the Legislature’s inaction this year on a wildfire funding package.

“I hope that work will continue at some point because I don’t believe our general fund is in a position or will be any time in the future to continue to fight these fires,” Holvey said.

Gov. Kate Brown appointed a wildfire council in 2019 to research and make recommendations about the needs that Oregon is going to face during the upcoming wildfire season. The council estimated a $4 billion cost over 20 years for its recommendations.

Brown followed up by calling for the 2020 legislative session to direct $25 million toward the package’s goals, but it failed to win passage because of the Republican’s walkout to prevent a vote on a carbon reduction bill. 

Governor’s office spokesperson Nikki Fisher said in a statement late Thursday that fire seasons are only going to get more and more challenging. Studies suggest the comprehensive costs of wildfire are many times greater than the immediate costs of firefighting. Fisher said the coronavirus pandemic had made things worse.

Social distancing and other measures aimed at preventing the coronavirus from spreading have led to the cancellation of prescribed burning that happens during the spring to thin out underbrush and other built-up fuel for forest fires.

Oregon Department of Forestry Chief of Fire Protection Doug Grafe said drought conditions are making for a high risk of wildfire in a season that could get underway as early as May.

“On top of that, COVID-19 will cause challenges for us,” he said. “We will need to add additional spacing as we mobilize resources, ensure enough vehicles to mobilize resources to meet social distancing requirements, expand cleaning capacity and sanitation resources.”

Fire camps will also have to be expanded. 

“Where we typically could camp 1,000 firefights in a small field, we’ll need to spread those resources out and do a lot of work that we can do, remotely as much as possible,” Grafe said.
Oregon State University’s faculty research assistant Rachel Houtman said wildfire seasons are hard to predict.

“We don’t know what the next fire season is going to look like; we can kind of guess and predict but our models aren’t perfect,” Houtman said. That makes it difficult to know how much money to set aside for firefighting costs.

Budgeting ahead is especially tricky this year. Training has been upended because of the pandemic, as has prescribed burning. Houtman said that will put fire crews on a more reactive footing when there are big fires that threaten human lives or property. 

“This inability to do mitigation either due to funding or due to sheltering in place is going to drive us more to that reactive instead of proactive behavior,” she said.