Swift action needed to address Oregon wildfires
Even as the smoke slowly dissipates from metro-area skies, many local residents remain prone to despair in this most miserable of years. They feel heartbreak, for sure, for the lives lost to the flames, the homes burned and the destruction of more than a million acres of Oregon's beauty.
But deep down, they also have to wonder whether the catastrophic events of the past week will become commonplace occurrences for future Oregon summers. Will the combined forces of a warmer planet, extreme weather events, forest mismanagement and human carelessness leave our state vulnerable to massive blazes and unbreathable air, year after insufferable year?
If so, Oregon will no longer be itself. This state is defined by its natural beauty, and it has long prioritized livability above all else. Without those attributes, why move here? Why stay?
From that perspective, the existential crisis predicted by climate-change scientists is arriving early in Oregon — as well as in California and Washington. Honestly, beyond trying to set a good example with environmental measures, there's little Oregon can do to slow climate change.
But the fires of September 2020 — while preconditioned by extraordinary weather patterns — had other, more controllable causes. And that's where the right policies, practices and attitudes can make a real difference and allow the state to adapt to the climate of the future.
There's no single answer to problems that have been building for decades. But knowledgeable people can point to a number of practical steps that governments and individuals must take:
• Oregonians must support and accelerate initiatives already underway. These include a 2018 bipartisan Congressional bill — Sen. Ron Wyden was a sponsor — that addressed a glaring issue with U.S. Forest Service funding.
For years, the Forest Service was running short of money to fight fires and was tapping into funds that could have been used for fire prevention. Congress's "fire funding fix," as it was called, gives the Forest Service, starting in the 2020 fiscal year, an emergency fund for fire suppression, which theoretically would free up $1.3 billion for prevention and other forest service programs. Since the funding is just taking effect, now is the time to insist on the right kinds of fire-prevention efforts in Oregon.
• Oregon legislators must meet soon to approve two commonsense bills that didn't make it out of the February session, due to a partisan meltdown over carbon legislation. Senate Bill 1514 would create 15 projects to be led by the state Forestry Department that would clear trees, underbrush and other forest material considered to be fuel for wildfire. The second bill, SB 1536, directly addressed what we are witnessing today. It included policies and regulations for hardening homes against fire, protecting against harmful smoke, removing fuels and generally helping communities adapt to the inevitability of wildfires.
Gov. Kate Brown on Monday said another special session is likely, but probably won't happen before the November general election.
• Brown's executive order on climate change, which was signed before the fire season, could be used as a vehicle for more short-term measures related to wildfire. Large parts of her executive order focused on emissions, energy efficiency and clean fuels — initiatives with little immediate effect on fire susceptibility. But beyond those climate-related issues, the order could open the door to think about tying climate mitigation to fire prevention. This could include using farm and forest lands to sequester carbon (as suggested by an opinion column by Gregory Smith and Peter Hayes), which could lead to healthier, damper and less fuel-heavy rural lands.
• Oregon leaders — at all levels of government — must come to grips with environmental tradeoffs. Preserving forests from logging activities can lead to fuel buildups that in turn contribute to bigger, hotter and more dangerous fires. The natural life cycle of forests has been disrupted by years of fire suppression and misguided management.
• More research must be done to determine how best to reduce the potential for wildfires in the coming era of weather extremes. It is simply not enough to say we are going to reduce carbon emissions — the state must learn to live with a new reality. Oregon's universities, with public and private help, can assist by creating a better understanding of high-risk areas for wildfire and how climate change alters wildfire behavior.
• The state's utilities must be more aggressive in the future in managing their transmission systems to lower the chance of igniting fires. Downed power lines were the suspected cause of some of the recent fires. Portland General Electric took the unprecedented step last week of cutting power to 5,000 customers to keep branches and other debris from coming into contact with live power lines. These sorts of actions must become the norm in the future.
• Reckless individual behavior — such as using fireworks or burning debris during high-risk seasons — must become socially unacceptable and be treated harshly by the judicial system. What once might have been viewed as immature actions now can have deadly consequences.
• The state's residents and leaders must look for common ground when it comes to managing wildfire risk. Economic opportunities exist for rural Oregon, if dead trees and forest debris are removed for sale. Forest byproducts can be turned into revenue for communities, and urban residents should support those enterprises.
This latter point — the need to bring urban and rural Oregon together — is perhaps the key to positive forward movement. No longer are wildfires primarily a hazard for rural communities. These fires threatened suburbs. They leveled entire neighborhoods in some parts of the state. They pushed noxious smoke into every last corner of Oregon.
Any true leaders in this state would look at the aftermath — the utter devastation — and vow this should never happen again. The idea that this should be a partisan issue is repugnant. Let research, science and common sense lead us to better practices.
To start that conversation, the Oregon Legislature should come into special session — yes, again — to discuss productive responses, not just for disaster relief, but for making sure Oregon can stay Oregon.
We cannot imagine a topic more deserving of immediate attention.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.