Gov. Kate Brown’s wildfire response in her proposed budget offers cold comfort to Southern Oregonians looking for relief from long summers of smoke that have damaged the local economy and endangered public health.
“What the governor is proposing is nothing,” said Dave Schott, executive vice president for the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association. “The disappointment resonates with everyone down here.”
Brown last week proposed an $23.6 billion, biennial general fund budget that contains $400,000 for administration of a committee to study whether the current way of fighting wildfires is working.
Schott said the governor’s idea to embark on a study of wildfire management will be added to the many studies that have come before, and her study won’t be completed until September 2019.
“The charge of the Council is to evaluate Oregon’s current system for responding to large fires, and determine whether or not the current model is sustainable. The Council will issue a report in September of 2019 to make recommendations for the future of Oregon’s wildfire response infrastructure,” Brown’s proposed budget stated.
Brown also wants to hire a person to look for more grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to offset damages caused by wildfires.
Brown’s office didn’t answer requests for a response Friday and Monday, offering only to provide background information on the proposal.
When Brown ran for office, she vowed to find solutions to the wildfires that plague the region and pump punishing smoke into the valley for months.
Local officials have praised the Oregon Department of Forestry’s response to the fires it manages, such as the Ramsey Canyon fire, which was put out quickly.
ODF protects lands owned by the state, the Bureau of Land Management and private forests.
According to Brown’s budget proposal, the overall budget for ODF in 2019-21 is up 2.08 percent, or relatively flat.
Over the summer, ODF asked for more personnel to fight fires and to help with forest management, but those requests don’t appear in the budget proposal.
Bobbi Doan, a spokeswoman for ODF, said the governor’s budget is a starting point for the 2019 legislative session.
“The Legislature ultimately sets the budget, which likely will not be final until mid-year,” she said. “With that in mind, we’re going into the session with a governor’s recommended budget that maintains consistent funding for the department and does not propose elimination of any filled positions.”
Sen. Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, is considering a bill that would put ODF in charge of all fire management in Oregon, though it would still rely heavily on support from the federal government.
The U.S. Forest Service is in charge of federal wilderness areas and national forests, including the rugged Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area, which often generates the largest wildfires with the most smoke. Last summer, the Taylor Creek and Klondike fires to the west of Merlin burned more than 200,000 acres.
“Smoke has never been a concern before,” Schott said. “It’s got to become a concern.”
He said the U.S. Forest Service was overwhelmed with fire last year in the West, but he thinks going forward the goal should be to put the fires out quickly.
He said controlling a fire in the Kalmiopsis is difficult, but he thinks fire managers could have done a better job last summer. He criticized the number of backfires that were lit, scorching thousands of acres and adding to the pervasive smoke.
The Chamber of Medford/Jackson County has urged Congress to take action to adopt a bill that will put more effort into managing Southern Oregon’s forests.
Over the summer, the Britt Festival, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and other business, including local Realtors, noticed a dramatic drop in business when the smoke dominated the skies.
Brad Hicks, president and chief executive officer of the chamber, said he was upset to see a lack of initiative in Brown’s budget to deal with this issue.
“It’s disappointing that, A, the funds are so limited and, B, that the funds are to study the effects rather than doing something about the wildfires,” Hicks said. “I think every summer for the last decade has been a case study in wildfires, and enough is enough.”
Sen.-elect Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, said Brown’s study idea doesn’t go far enough.
“We’re on a downward spiral,” he said. “We can’t afford to let the fuel build up in Southern Oregon.”
Golden said the state should take the lead in finding solutions, and he’ll be offering an idea that he raised during his campaign by offering some sort of tuition repayment program for students who serve as firefighters during the summer months.
He said insurance companies might also be willing to help pay for buffer zones around communities to prevent the kinds of devastation seen in California, where the community of Paradise was almost completely destroyed by the Camp fire.
While he doesn’t think there’s a magic bullet that will solve the wildfire dilemma, he didn’t think Brown’s proposal even scratches the surface.
“What’s not an option is ignoring this or scattering a few nickels and dimes to calm us down,” he said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.