Even as firefighters continued to suppress dozens of wildfires spread over 1 million acres, Gov. Kate Brown and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden have renewed calls to help Oregon recover from the current fires and prevent them in the future.
At least eight deaths were confirmed by the state medical examiner as of Sept. 17, and the total is likely to increase as search teams begin work in some of the communities devastated by the fires.
Brown urged the Emergency Board, which meets between legislative sessions, to set aside at least $150 million for firefighting costs. The board is expected to convene when lawmakers have committee meetings Sept. 21-25.
Brown did announce the creation of a community rebuilding fund with help from the Meyer Memorial Trust, Oregon Community Foundation and Ford Family Foundation.
"I think we all know we are a long way from recovery," she said on Sept. 14.
Brown invited donations to the new fund, or to the American Red Cross, Oregon Food Bank or local relief agencies.
Wyden weighs in
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Sen. Wyden urged his colleagues to start working on legislation to create a new version of the Civilian Conservation Corps, allow prescribed fires and promote other means of wildfire prevention.
The corps is modeled on the New Deal agency that between 1933 and 1942 put young men to work in the nation's forests. Silver Falls State Park east of Salem is a legacy of the corps. The new corps would help reduce potential wildfire fuels and stabilize soils.
Wyden and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley completed a two-day tour of wildfire command centers and evacuation shelters in Oregon City, Salem, Springfield and Central Point. They were joined at various stops by Reps. Kurt Schrader, Peter DeFazio and Greg Walden.
After years of effort, Democrat Wyden and Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho won congressional approval in 2018 for the costs of wildfire fighting to be drawn from its own suppression fund — estimated now at $3 billion — instead of program budgets of the Forest Service and other land management agencies.
But Wyden, in a speech in the Senate on Sept. 14, said suppression is not enough.
"This needs to be the day the Senate gets serious about fire prevention as part of a comprehensive effort to fight the climate crisis. These ideas ought to become law soon, and with broad bipartisan support," he said.
"I'm talking about policies aimed at protecting our communities and the families who live in them. Protecting jobs. Protecting homes and businesses. These proposals cost money, but it's a lot cheaper to prevent a fire than it is to rebuild a community out of the ashes."
Wyden and Merkley also sent a letter to congressional leaders — signed by seven other senators and 34 representatives, all Democrats — that they intend to seek more federal aid for wildfire recovery efforts.
They said in part in their Sept. 17 letter:
"While the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal partners have mobilized to assist states, more work remains as communities begin to assess and understand the scope of damages to properties and natural resources. Congress has previously acted in the aftermath of wildfires to provide federal relief, and accordingly, we ask that you make funds available for necessary wildfire response and recovery."
They said they intend to attach the request to any must-pass legislation. One is a bill to extend federal spending authority beyond the end of the budget year Sept. 30. Another is a potential aid package including hurricanes and flooding in the South and the August windstorm in Iowa.
Among the signers were DeFazio, Schrader and Democratic Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici.
Proposal on table
Brown also said that while her priority now is sufficient aid for firefighters to suppress fires, search teams to find victims and survivors to get relief, she will press for legislative action on recommendations by her Wildfire Council in 2019. They were contained in Senate Bill 1536, during the 2020 regular session, that would have started Oregon toward more resiliency against wildfires. The council estimated that it will cost Oregon $200 million annually during the next two decades to suppress, mitigate and prevent wildfires.
That bill wasn't all about money. Among its provisions was a requirement for utilities to safeguard their power lines. Pacific Gas & Electric was found to be at fault for the 2018 California wildfire that is considered the most devastating in recent times — until now.
"I will tell you that I expect the Legislature to take up these issues before the end of the year," Brown told reporters at a briefing Sept. 17. "We have to tackle how we ensure that our forest lands are responsibly managed through thinning, fuel reduction and prescribed fire. We have to make sure that our communities are better prepared in terms of evacuation plans, as we set forth in our legislation. We have to make sure we are fighting these fires with current methodologies, as opposed to systems that were put in place over 100 years ago."
"The intensity, temperature, frequency and the length of the fire season have changed in the past several decades. Oregon needs to update our firefighting strategies to meet those new challenges."
Brown said earlier this month that a special session, which would be the third this year, might be needed after the Nov. 3 election to deal with potential housing shortages caused by the wildfires.
SB 1536 never reached a vote of the Senate, despite the Legislature's budget committee adding $25 million to start the work, because the Legislature abruptly adjourned the 2020 regular session. Brown did not specify it, but Democratic legislative leaders closed it down after Republican walkouts over proposed climate-change legislation deprived them of the two-thirds majorities required to conduct any business.
Two days before the March 5 ending, Brown testified to a Senate committee on the council bill:
"Doing nothing is not an option. Studies suggest the comprehensive costs of wildfire are 11 times greater than the immediate costs of firefighting.Â
"And by investing in restoration treatments and forest health, Oregon may avoid costly damages while simultaneously creating jobs in rural parts of the state.Â
"That is why I am asking you, the Legislature, to invest $200 million this session in wildfire prevention, mitigation, and suppression — don't worry, not all in this bill.Â
"This is a rare moment in which we are well-positioned to get ahead of the problem. But that won't last for long.Â
"We have a real chance to make a difference in the 2020 fire season."
NOTE: Story rewritten and updated with comments from Gov. Brown and Sen. Wyden.Â
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