Members of Congress visit wildfire centers and shelters
Now that Oregon's numerous wildfires have triggered a major-disaster declaration from the federal government, Oregon's congressional delegation has pledged quick action for short-term relief from their immediate effects and longer-term recovery for preventing future fires.
Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, plus Reps. Kurt Schrader and Peter DeFazio, stopped Friday, Sept. 11, at four fire command centers and evacuation shelters throughout the state. Schrader was with the senators at a command center in Clackamas County offices in Oregon City and a shelter at the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem. DeFazio was with the senators at a command center and shelter at separate locations in Springfield.
"Senator Wyden and I want to be able to talk with people on the scene, but not get in the way," Merkley said in announcing the visits.
The declaration by President Donald Trump, approved late Thursday, allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide food and shelter aid, and eventually, recovery.
"A lot of rebuilding is going to be necessary," Schrader said Friday on his stop in Salem. "I want to make sure FEMA resources get here in a timely manner. Based on talking with firefighters, I want to make sure there is a transition to a seamless effort."
FEMA's Northwest regional office already approved aid for suppression of 15 Oregon fires, most of them within the past week.
The shelter at the state fairgrounds is primarily for livestock from owners in Marion and surrounding counties. Wyden said he got assurances from the American Red Cross, which is helping evacuated people at the fairgrounds, that they can find a safe place until wildfire smoke dissipates. Because of the coronavirus pandemic and the need for social distancing, the Red Cross and others have had to revise their protocols for evacuation shelters.
"This is all about immediate action — to make sure people are safe. The declaration provides individual assistance," Wyden said Friday on his stop in Salem. "Then we move on to broader recovery. I'm going to focus on additional help for fire prevention."
This year marks a change in how the federal government pays for fighting wildfires, because of congressional action back in 2018. The money used to come out of agency budgets, a practice known as "fire borrowing," resulting in the Forest Service and others diverting from fire prevention and other programs. But now the money comes from a fund, estimated at $3 billion, earmarked for firefighting costs.
"We are in good shape in terms of fire suppression," Wyden said. "But we also have got to deal with this massive fuel buildup in our forests."
Among those steps, Merkley said, are reducing hazardous fuel buildups in federal forests, promoting more collaborative efforts by timber companies, environmental advocates and local communities, and training of more National Guard soldiers to help firefighting efforts.
Merkley said Friday he was able to secure more federal money for training of two additional National Guard teams for firefighting, bringing the total to five teams of 125 soldiers each. Oregon received $900,000 initially for training of the first three teams. Wyden observed some of that training July 12 on the grounds of the state public safety academy southeast of Salem.
"Let's do things that we know will work," Merkley said. "Let's do more of those."
Merkley said longer-term action will be necessary to head off the worst effects of widespread fires as the Northwest climate becomes drier and trees succumb to disease and insects.
"This is a world in which we can anticipate we are going to have additional fire seasons like this, probably year after year after year," he said. "As the planet gets warmer, forests get drier and we have more storms with lightning strikes, we have everything in place for dramatically escalating fires. We need to do everything we can to address that."
The senators said they will press for short-term aid for several disasters, including wildfires elsewhere in the West and hurricanes in the South, as part of the must-pass legislation that will continue federal spending authority past the end of the budget year on Sept. 30.
Schrader said he hopes one result of the wildfire emergency will be to bring people together despite political and philosophical differences.
"Politics isn't about arguing ideology," he said. "It's about serving the community and helping each other. I hope that out of this, everyone starts to feel again that this is a great country and we all work together despite our differences — and we will be stronger at the end of the day."
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