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Helping communities adapt and creating resilient landscapes considered top priorities to improve state's wildfire response

PMG FILE PHOTO - A report from the state suggests it will take many billions of dollars to properly prepare for future catastrophic fires.

After revealing in October that it will take $4 billion to ensure the state properly responds to catastrophic wildfires, Gov. Kate Brown's Council on Wildfire Response released recommendations last week on how the money should be spent.

The report said the state should focus on creating fire-adapted communities, restoring and maintaining resilient landscapes and effective wildfire response.

The 110-page report contains 37 specific recommendations with short-term, mid-range and long-term solutions. The council said the highest priorities are working with power utilities to create risk mitigation plans, changing building codes to require defensible space around homes built near forests, reducing fuels within forests that cause catastrophic fires and educating the public on wildfire prevention. The council also called for a new financing system to pay for wildfire suppression.

"These are big costs, and they're obviously big investments, but the cost of inaction greatly exceeds the cost of action," council chairman Matt Donegan said.

In October, the council presented its broad plan to Brown, outlining a need during the next 20 years for $4 billion. At that time, Donegan explained that Oregon uses an antiquated model for fire suppression and mitigation that was created for a state with a third of its current population and even less resources.

Brown and Donegan point to one finding within the report they feel justifies the vast investment it's going to take to modernize wildfire response in Oregon. The report calculates that associated costs such as medical needs, loss of tourism and damage to infrastructure and watersheds are 11 times higher than the cost of wildfire suppression. Donegan said the state spent $533 million on suppression in 2018, putting the associated costs at about $6 billion.

"Over 20 years we could easily be talking about tens of billions of dollars of damage," he said.

Brown posited that the report was a reminder that warming temperatures around the globe continue to increase the year-round risk of wildfire and the price tag that comes along with them. She added that if the state doesn't act on climate change soon, Oregonians could see never-ending wildfire seasons.

"The devastation left in the wake of recent wildfires across the West is yet another alarming reminder of how this generation and the next will bear the costs of climate change — in lost dollars, homes, and lives," Brown said. "If we do not act now, Oregon's grandchildren will be left to pay an appalling price."

Donegan said he believes that wildfires hit vulnerable populations hardest. Children and seniors are adversely affected by smoke caused by wildfire. Many of the 85 people who died in the Camp Fire that ripped through Paradise, Calif., last year were disabled, and low-income people don't have the resources to adapt their homes by installing air filtration or cleaning the landscape around their homes to create defensible space, he said.

"To actually have a proactive plan in place for our most vulnerable communities is important," Donegan said.

Donegan said he has heard the call from Oregonians for a cohesive response and now the council has provided lawmakers and state agency leaders the framework to act. Brown's natural resources policy adviser Jason Miner will join Donegan when he presents the council's recommendations to lawmakers at the capitol in late November.

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