Wildfire bills snuffed in Salem

Fire crews work at a controlled burn near Grants Pass.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune

Wildfire prevention bills fizzled this Oregon legislative session despite pleas from local legislators for help after two summers of smoke undermined the health and economy of Southern Oregon.

A $6.8 million wildfire prevention bill championed by Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, to help thin forests around cities in Jackson County was the biggest casualty. Marsh is on Gov. Kate Brown’s Council on Wildfire Response.

Marsh and Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford, both gave impassioned pleas before the Legislature about the impact wildfires have had on Southern Oregon.

“We spent a half a billion dollars on Oregon fires last year, and we can continue to spend money on suppression, but it seems much smarter to be up-fronting costs around prevention,” Marsh said.

Wallan said it was difficult to get lawmakers in the Willamette Valley to understand how devastating the fire and smoke was for this region, which contributed to the lack of enthusiasm about the bills.

“It was very disheartening,” she said. “We did not get much traction up there.”

The Oregon Department of Forestry sought additional dollars but ended up getting a 2019-21 budget that was 1.3% less than its previous budget, primarily due to one-time money in the previous budget that was used for Elliot State Forest. The $388,709,762 budget won’t increase manpower or add new equipment to help wildfire suppression. But, subtracting the Elliot State Forest dollars from the previous budget, the 2019-21 budget represents a 12.73 percent increase.

Bobbi Doan, a spokeswoman for ODF, said in an email that the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response will look at the funding for wildfire response and could recommend changes later this year.

Additional dollars to help forest thinning that were part of the failed House Bill 2020, the cap-and-trade legislation that prompted a Senate Republican walkout, also didn’t survive, Marsh said.

She said it was disappointing to not get the funding for wildfire prevention, but she hopes other smaller efforts will help plant the seed for future funding of forest thinning operations.

The Legislature did support $2 million to map at-risk areas to help prioritize future thinning operations around communities. The Oregon State University Extension Service will take on the project.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality received a $250,000 grant for smoke mitigation, specifically to find ways to lessen the impact of smoke from controlled burns during the off season.

Marsh said the Wildfire Council will get $250,000 to continue studying the issue, gearing up to reach a conclusion by fall.

Despite the setbacks, Marsh said she will continue to fight for efforts to reduce wildfire risks in Oregon to avoid conflagrations like the one that devastated the city of Paradise, California, last fall.

Wallan pointed out that the council’s conclusions will come well after Oregon’s 2019 fire season is over.

A freshman in the House, Wallan said she dove into the session believing the Legislature would have to do something after the horrendous fires that left the Rogue Valley socked in with smoke for more than two months in 2018.

She offered a bill that would allow the Oregon Department of Forestry to enter U.S. Forest Service lands to put out fires. Last year, much of the acreage burned in Southern Oregon was on federal land.

“I really thought as a naive freshman that a super simple bill to allow ODF to put out fires on U.S. Forest Service land would go somewhere,” she said.

Wallan said ODF isn’t the problem when it comes to wildfire suppression, citing the “let-it-burn” philosophy of the U.S. Forest Service, a charge the Forest Service has denied. To help ODF, Wallan said there were attempts made to give it more money for wildfire suppression.

“Both Pam and I gave floor speeches on the ODF budget,” she said.

In general, legislators in the northern part of the state didn’t grasp the need for additional resources to combat wildfires or to embrace thinning projects, Wallan said.

“There’s a real lack of understanding up there of what we really go through down here,” she said.

One bright note was increasing the Oregon State Fire Marshal budget from practically nothing to about $1 million, Wallan said.

She said the budget will be used to find ways to better protect structures and towns in fire-prone areas.

During a legislative session that was overwhelmed with partisan wrangling, Wallan said local legislators from both parties offered a united front in the wildfire debate.

“When it comes to breathing smoke, the partisan thing goes out the window,” she said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

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