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Oregon lawmakers suggest reforms may have to wait until the full session next year

PMG FILE PHOTO - TVF&R and other local agencies have sent personnel and equipment to fight Oregon's wildfires in the past.

Drastically improving the way Oregon fights wildfire could face more of an uphill political battle than lawmakers previously expected.

More than a dozen people from various organizations and local government showed up to the Senate Committee on Wildfire Response on Feb. 5 to express concerns over certain provisions laid out in wide-sweeping legislation crafted on the recommendations of Gov. Kate Brown's Council on Wildfire.

The legislation — Senate Bill 1536 — aims to modernize Oregon's approach through new building codes, land-use planning, mapping of high-risk areas, treatment of forest debris, mitigation of smoke on public health, and forest protection.

But at the meeting earlier this month, opposition was put on the record from Deschutes County officials, the Oregon Property Owners Association, conservation advocacy group Cascadia Wildlands and state Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr. (R-Grants Pass), vice chairman of the Senate committee.

"A long time ago my dad said to me, 'There's a lot of things you want and then there's what you can afford,'" Baertschiger said. "That's basically what we're looking at here. This is a big state. It's got a lot of fuels from one side to the other, but we're only 4.3 million people. We're not California, so we're stuck in this dilemma of having a lot of things we want, but what can we afford?"

Deschutes County Commissioner Phil Henderson told the committee that he and his two colleagues — Community Development Director Nick Lelack and Deschutes County Forester Ed Keith — traveled from Bend to Salem because their citizens are greatly concerned about the threat of smoke and wildfire to their communities, which share nearly 80 miles of urban-wildland interface on the county's west side.

They expressed concern over certain mandates in the bill for Oregon's counties and whether they'd be funded to complete such tasks as fuel reduction measures.

According to Henderson, Deschutes County has about 120,000 acres that are ready for treatment to reduce fuel loads, but much of that is U.S. Forest Service lands and a partnership with the federal government would be required before pursuing treatment in those areas.

"Somehow the state has to prod the federal government. Without that it's not going to be possible," Henderson said.

Baertschiger, red pen in hand, went page-by-page through the legislation, rattling off sections of the bill he said required the time of a full-length legislative session to discuss and hammer out details.

According to Baertschiger, that's a large portion of the bill and includes sections on public utility risk planning, development of new statewide risk reduction standards and measures, updating building codes, smoke abatement, emergency management and more.

"These are much longer conversations and we probably need to wait for a longer session and much more in-depth conversation," he said.

Baertschiger also pointed out the state's limited role on federal forests.

"We're not going to have the say-so of which lands and how to treat them. We're not going to have that (say) even though we're using our money. These are federal lands and they fall under federal jurisdiction," he said. "We have to remember, this is complicated."

After finishing his speech, Baertschiger turned to Brown's natural resources adviser, Jason Miner, asking whether he had written everything down and was prepared to draft amendments based on his concerns.

A laugh rang through the room — including from the Senate members and even Miner himself — as Baertschiger dropped his marked-up version of the bill in Miner's hands.

Committee chairman state Sen. Jeff Golden (D-Ashland) requested Miner look at ways to amend the bill to get the committee closer to agreeing on what could be done now and what can wait for 2021.

Golden said he hopes to analyze that approach after hearing more public testimony.

"There's a lot here, obviously, and the two big baskets are, what can we do — another look at what's realistic in this session, and what needs to wait for a longer conversation. The other one has to do with a jurisdiction authority, federal decisions and our decisions," Golden said.

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