A summer of smoke has lit a fire under Southern Oregon legislators looking for a way forward after the region’s economy and health took a beating in 2018.
“People were having this existential moment as they were besieged by fire and smoke,” said Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland. “Fire season is now 60 days longer than it ever was before.”
In the short term, local legislators, who will convene Jan. 22 for the opening day of the 2019 session, want to better protect vulnerable communities in the Rogue Valley by thinning forests to prevent the kind of wildfire that destroyed most of the city of Paradise, California, in November.
“How do we ensure that we are not the next community that incinerates?” Marsh said.
Marsh said there’s a project in the works through the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative that would help create a buffer around communities in the Applegate, Merlin, Prospect, Little Butte Creek watershed and Briggs in the Illinois Valley. The new project, still under grant review, would involve creating fuel breaks and clearing overgrown areas.
If a grant isn’t awarded, Marsh said she would look at drafting a bill to ensure money is available for critical restoration work around communities in Southern Oregon.
“I want to ensure the funding is there,” she said. “We are watching the allocations that come forward. Restoration is the best investment we can make.”
Beyond protecting communities at risk from wildfires, Marsh wants more public-private partnerships, such as the Klamath-Lake Forest Health Partnership that led to the thinning of 20,000 acres in the Fremont-Winema National Forest as well as 6,000 acres on private land.
The state is considering updating building codes for houses surrounded by wildlands so they are less vulnerable to flying embers that often ignite structures.
Marsh has been holding smoke and fire forums to get ideas on ways to better protect communities. The next forum will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17, at the Asante Smullin Health Education Center, 2825 E. Barnett Road, Medford.
Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, has introduced a bill that would create a workforce of students and others who would agree to spend a year thinning forests in exchange for student tuition credits.
Golden said he has submitted a brief outline of possible legislation that aims at creating a workforce to undertake fuel reduction and thinning.
“The [Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project] is just a drop in the bucket,” he said, referring to a 10-year project to reduce the risk of wildfire in the Ashland watershed. “I want to think really big and see what we can do that is nontraditional.”
Golden said students could put their college classes on hold for a year to go work in the forest. In exchange, they would get a credit on their tuition.
Insurance companies, which have been hard hit by the fires in California, would be asked to participate in the program, Golden said. He thinks insurance companies would have a financial incentive to back thinning projects around communities next to wildlands, and he would back commercial timber sales where they make sense, though he wouldn’t embrace wholesale clear-cutting.
So far his ideas have been well received, Golden said.
“I’ve talked to the governor’s staff about this, and their ears perked up,” he said.
While thinning is important, Golden said he wants a more long-term commitment to address climate change and reduce carbon emissions, an issue the Legislature will take up this session.
“There is some serious squabbling over the details of the bill,” Golden said. “But if we look at California, that state did something meaningful, and carbon emissions are going down.”
Golden said the Jordan Cove pipeline project is intimately connected with Oregon’s attempts to reduce carbon emissions.
“I feel we are wasting our time with carbon enforcement without dealing with Jordan Cove,” Golden said.
Not everyone is on board with these Democratic initiatives.
Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford, sounded skeptical about many of the proposals being put forward by her colleagues.
She said the Oregon Department of Forestry already uses inmates to help with fires and thinning.
“And there is nothing stopping students from working in the forests now for pay,” Wallan said. “I don’t know what the benefit would be.”
More could be done to help reduce the risk of wildfire, but Wallan said it’s difficult to get the permissions and the money to tackle a particular area of forest.
“Honestly the laws already exist,” she said. “It’s really the will to use the ones we already have. And then all you need is someone to file a lawsuit to effectively shut it down.”
She said budgets and lawsuits are limiting factors to thinning the forest. “They’re doing what they can, but it’s not for lack of a workforce,” Wallan said.
She has a bigger issue with fire management, particularly the federal response to fires over the past summer that resulted in the Taylor Creek and Klondike fires eventually combining to burn more than 200,000 acres and pump the majority of the smoke into Southern Oregon.
“It’s the people in charge making those calls,” she said. “There are some perverse incentives to make the best of the crisis. There is not a ton you can do legislatively about that in Oregon.”
Right now the state is confronted with a federal response to fires that varies greatly from the state’s response. She said the governor’s office could do more to prod federal agencies and federal lawmakers to react differently to Oregon’s fire needs.
“It’s a bully pulpit, and that’s worth something,” she said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.