Gov. Brown: Oregon lawmakers step up on wildfire challenges
Gov. Kate Brown says Oregon can bolster firefighting efforts and reduce the threat of devastating wildfires, more of them likely to occur with a warming climate, with help from a wide-ranging bill she has signed into law.
Senate Bill 762 was the focus of a ceremony that state officials conducted Friday, July 30, at the World Forestry Center in Portland. Attached to it is $220 million to increase the number of firefighters on the ground and modernize planes in the air, install automatic smoke detection cameras, map high-risk wildfire zones and define defensible space around homes, carry out projects such as forest thinning and prescribed burning and provide clean-air shelters for people fleeing fires.
"We still have a lot of work ahead of us to implement this bill," Brown said. "However, we are laying the roadmap and devoting the resources needed to transform our approach to meet the challenges of this new era of wildfire."
Brown had recommended similar steps almost 18 months ago, in line with a report by an advisory council she named in 2019. But state lawmakers abruptly adjourned their 2020 session after Republican walkouts over climate-change legislation denied majority Democrats the numbers required to conduct legislative business. Among the bills left on the table was a budget measure to implement some of the recommendations.
Then came the Labor Day fires that swept through Oregon and affected every major community west of the Cascades: Portland, Salem, Eugene, Roseburg, Grants Pass and Medford. A fire also broke out on the central coast.
"That Labor Day, we saw exactly the kind of destruction we feared would come from fire seasons that have grown hotter, longer and more intense. I will never forget the red sky over Salem, and the thick smoke that blocked the sun. I don't think any of us will forget our horror as we saw entire towns burned overnight. Thousands evacuated their homes leaving behind all their belongings.
"We lost nine lives, more than 4,000 homes, and 2,000 other structures. When I toured the fire damaged areas later that fall, I was heartbroken to see how much Oregon families had lost. So many are still trying to rebuild. Oregon could not afford to go another session without action."
The bill emerged late in the session from the Senate Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery Committee — a counterpart committee in the House originated bills affecting individual recovery from the 2020 Labor Day wildfires — and won approval with bipartisan majorities in the final two days of the 2021 session. Most of the dissenters in both chambers were from rural areas concerned about state agency mapping of high-risk wildfire zones, known as the wildland-urban interface, and definition of defensive space around homes in such areas.
Brown signed the actual bill on July 19.
So far this fire season, the Bootleg fire about 30 miles northeast of Klamath Falls has consumed more than 400,000 acres — more than half the size of Rhode Island, the nation's smallest state, and second in Oregon history only to the 2002 Biscuit fire in southwest Oregon. The Tillamook Burn, by comparison, burned 350,000 acres on the coast over 20 years.
Brown, who went to Klamath Falls earlier in the week, said prolonged drought combined with neglect of public lands "created the perfect storm we have seen."
Matt Donegan, who spoke at the ceremony via video link, led the Governor's Wildfire Response Council in 2019. Donegan, who has a background in forest management, praised Brown for creating a sense of urgency.
"We need to modernize rapidly and on a large scale, and we need to do so cost-effectively. We need full engagement from public and private partners," he said. "Oregon's wildfire bill is a single but significant step in this historic effort."
Brown was joined by leaders of two of the nine agencies that will share the $220 million.
Mariana Ruiz-Temple became state fire marshal, part of the Oregon State Police, during the 2020 Labor Day wildfires. She said the $125 million that is earmarked will boost firefighting capacity. The fire marshal is responsible for mustering state and local firefighting efforts against major wildfires under a 1941 state law. The money also will help her office aid local governments and reduce wildfire risk for communities.
"This action should help in that immediate response to keep fires small and keep fires outside of our communities," she said.
Nancy Hirsch came out of retirement two months ago, after 33 years with the Oregon Department of Forestry that ended in 2019, to become acting state forester. It's her second time in the job, which she also held for five months in 2009 and 2010.
Hirsch said there is good coordination among the 300 or so local fire agencies, her agency — which has responsibility for fire protection on private lands and the federal lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management — and the Forest Service for national forests.
"Oregon's complete and coordinated fire system is functioning very well," she said. "As a result of these investments, we will at least keep up with and be able to meet the challenges we face."
Brown's council advised her that Oregon will have to be prepared to spend hundreds of millions over the next several years to deal with the looming threat of wildfires during an era of climate change. Brown told reporters afterward that the $220 million approved by the Legislature is a "good" down payment.
"There is absolutely no question it will take additional resources," she said. "The good news is that for every dollar we spend in prevention and mitigation, we save $11 in terms of costs. So it's well worth the investments. In terms of keeping our communities safe, our houses intact and our forests green, it's incredibly important."
Brown was one of seven western governors who took part in a conference call with President Joe Biden before the ceremony about wildfire response and other topics.
"The president committed this morning to working with Congress to get additional resources," she said. She added with a laugh: "He was unusually chatty, at least this morning."
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