Even as thousands of firefighters continue to suppress dozens of wildfires spread over 1 million acres, Gov. Kate Brown and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden called separately for actions to help Oregon recover from the current fires and prevent them in the future.
At least 10 deaths have been confirmed by the state medical examiner, and the total is likely to increase as search teams begin work in some of the communities devastated by the fires.
Brown did not mention it during her daily briefing, but she put lawmakers on notice she may invoke line-item vetoes to save a net $65 million that could be spent on firefighting and related costs. The Aug. 10 special session of the Legislature cut spending for most agencies — including the Department of Forestry, the Oregon National Guard and the Oregon State Police, all on the front lines of wildfire fighting — but also set aside money for potential caseload increases in the Department of Human Services and the Oregon Health Authority.
She also urged the Emergency Board, which meets between legislative sessions, to set aside at least $150 million for firefighting costs. No date has been set for that meeting, but legislative committee hearings are scheduled Sept. 21-23, so it will be sometime then.
The state emergency fund, as a result of action by the special session, has a record $200 million. Other funds subject to board control are not available yet, but would revert to the emergency fund if they are not spent by Nov. 1.
During her briefing that included officials from several agencies, Brown did announce the creation of a community rebuilding fund with help from the Meyer Memorial Trust, Oregon Community Foundation and Ford Family Foundation.
“Our fire teams tell me that cooler weather coming in toward the end of this week will be of tremendous help,” Brown said. “But I think we all know we are a long way from recovery.”
Wyden wades 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 Friday and Saturday in Oregon City, Salem, Springfield and Central Point. They were joined at various stops by U.S. 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 Monday, 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.”
Proposal on table
Brown also said the Oregon Legislature should have acted on recommendations by her Wildfire Council, 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.
The bill wasn’t all about money. Among its provisions was a requirement for utilities to secure 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.
Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod confirmed Monday that he was among those who lost his home in the wildfires. Girod lives in Lyons, where the fire burned; his office is in Stayton, which is at the western edge of the Marion County fires but unaffected.
“Beloved communities in Oregon have been devastated due to multiple wildfires sweeping across the state,” Girod said in a statement. “On a more personal level, the communities near me and in my district have suffered staggering losses, including the complete destruction of cities like Gates and Detroit, and the loss of my home.”
But Girod also accused Brown of inaction on wildfires. He said in his statement that Brown could have proposed funding, but didn’t, during either of two special legislative sessions June 24 to 26 or Aug. 10.
Brown did not respond directly during her briefing, and her comments on funding came about 30 minutes after Girod issued his statement. But she did mention during the briefing that SB 1536 never reached a vote of the Senate, despite clearance by the Legislature’s budget committee, because the Legislature abruptly adjourned the session a few days before the constitutional deadline. She did not specify why, but Democratic legislative leaders closed it down after Republican walkouts over proposed climate-change legislation deprived lawmakers 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.
“And by investing in restoration treatments and forest health, Oregon may avoid costly damages while simultaneously creating jobs in rural parts of the state.
“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.”
Brown’s March testimony seems prescient today. “This is a rare moment in which we are well-positioned to get ahead of the problem. But that won’t last for long,” she predicted. “We have a real chance to make a difference in the 2020 fire season.”