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More than nine in 10 state residents surveyed view wildfire as a 'very serious' or 'somewhat serious' threat

Throughout our history, Oregon's forests have been charred by fire and just as often replenished in the reassuring experience of resilience and renewal. The extreme fires of the 1930s and 1940s, known as the Tillamook Burn, are remembered as much for nature's rapid rebirthing and the replanting efforts of school children as for the damage done to the northern coast range. Nesbitt

But the more frequent, intense and far-ranging fires of recent years, which destroyed homes and claimed lives in all corners of the state, have changed the way we think about forest fires. Summer's fires loom just over the horizon. We call them wildfires now, reflecting the menace of what is beyond our control.

This is the second year of surveys by the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center that attempted to capture Oregonians' views of wildfires. Despite a rainy spring, the concerns that OVBC found a year ago persist.

More than nine in ten Oregonians (92%) view wildfire as a "very serious" or "somewhat serious" threat for "people living in Oregon." Closer to home, majorities feel the same about the threats to their own communities (60%) and their own families (53%). And a surprising 19% report that they have had to evacuate their local area because of a wildfire.

But the immediate threat of an out-of-control fire to people and property is only part of the story. At the top of the list of "great concerns" for Oregonians about the "possible effects of wildfire in your area" is not "damage to your personal property" (25%) but "the health effects of smoke" (59%). One need not be in an evacuation zone to be personally affected by fires that spew smoke over our communities for weeks at a time.

Even more telling is the pessimism that OVBC found in its survey. Oregonians overwhelming think it's very or somewhat likely that wildfires will get worse over the next ten years, both in number (88%) and severity (88%).

The reassurance that comes from observing nature's resilience is waning as well. Almost eight in ten Oregonians (79%) now think that it's very or somewhat likely that Oregon will experience the "loss of significant forests from drought and heat."

In addition to personal safety, the environmental damage wrought by wildfires also scores high on the list of Oregonians' concerns. Roughly eight in 10 rate "loss of wildlife and fish habitat" (82%) and "loss of public forestland" (79%) as a great or moderate concern. We're worried not just about ourselves, but about the natural beauty and environmental wealth of our state.

If there's any reassurance to be found in the OVBC survey, it's that our views about wildfire are broadly shared. There are no stark partisan or urban-rural divides among Oregonians in regard to the perceived threats of increased wildfires, nor in support for many of the public policy responses needed to mitigate these threats.

By significant margins, Oregonians support "clearing space around homes of flame-spread vegetation" (89%) and "hardening and preparing homes to be more fire resistant" (85%).

Majorities also emerge in the contentious area of forest management. More than three of every four Oregonians support "periodic controlled burning of built-up ground fuels" (78%) and removing "smaller, weaker and poorer quality trees in dense or crowded forests (76%).

And, on the most debated question in the survey, Oregonians by a three-to-one margin sided with those who favor fighting forest fires rather than letting them burn. This issue generated hundreds of comments from respondents, many of whom advocated a case-by-case approach to firefighting practices based on proximity to homes and weather conditions. But the most revealing theme in many of the comments was that fires can all too easily burn out of control now, and that we can no longer trust nature's resilience to protect us from the unpredictability, devastation and far-reaching effects of large wildfires.

On a more hopeful note, the broadly-shared concerns of Oregonians about the threat of wildfires helped to motivate the Legislature to enact Senate Bill 762 last year. That legislation called for an all-agencies-on-deck mobilization to mitigate risk and harden our built environment, develop programs for clean air shelters and smoke filtration systems and require utilities to develop wildfire protection plans.

Senate Bill 762 aligns neatly with many of the findings and preferences identified in the OVBC survey. Now it's up to dozens of state agencies to help turn preferences and plans into practices on the ground.

Tim Nesbitt, an Independence resident, is a former union leader in Oregon and served as an adviser to Govs. Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber


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