SILVERTON, Ore. — Oregon’s forestry department may ask legislators in the upcoming session for more money to deal with escalating wildfires.
State Forester Peter Daugherty told the Board of Forestry Wednesday that there is “big interest” in the Legislature in addressing fire policy, particularly when it comes to fires on Oregon’s federal land.
“They all want to do something, and I don’t know quite what it is they want to do,” Daugherty said. “But they have created a fire caucus, and there will be a fire policy discussion at their next legislative session.”
The timing may be right for the forestry department to make its case to legislators. While Oregon’s rural communities consistently see fire’s effects up close, the state’s major cities got a dose of smoke and ash from wildfires this summer.
The Eagle Creek Fire, which began in early September and is still burning on the scenic Columbia River Gorge east of Portland, caused particular distress. And this week, more than 20 people have perished as a result of wildfires in California wine country.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown was also “very engaged” in fire issues, Daugherty said.
Brown has convened a council to hasten the economic recovery from wildfires that scorched communities from Mosier to Brookings.
Fire protection makes up a good share of the agency’s costs.
The Oregon Department of Forestry estimates that to-date, the 2017 fire season has cost it $38.9 million.
Recent fire seasons have also put a strain on employees — a problem that was documented by state auditors last year.
When fire season hits, all divisions of the department help handle the workload.
“We were in all-hands-on-deck mode from the (Aug. 21 total solar) eclipse until just recently,” Daugherty said.
Harsh fire seasons and low timber revenues have plagued the agency’s state forests division and, as of April, that division of the agency was expected to go into the red in 2022.
Daugherty noted that the agency could also work to “strengthen” relationships with landowners, cooperation with other government agencies and remind the public of the link between forest management and fire.
Board member Cindy Deacon Williams, of Medford, argued that the wildfire situation may require more proactive measures to increase “resilience” on forestlands.
“If we don’t figure out a way to engage with it pro-actively ahead of the time, we will as an agency do nothing but rob Peter to pay fire,” said Williams, “With both funding and people, and energy, and effort, and talent, and the way the trends are going, there’s no way we can win that battle if that’s all we do.”
Daugherty expressed concern that this year’s fire season could stir up old tensions about fire policy and forest management.
“I think our real challenge will be to redirect these divisive conversations to a more productive conversation, where we can actually make progress by finding common ground,” Daugherty said.