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Governor hopes to shift way Oregon fights wildfires

Changing firefighting tactics and funding could aid the state in annual battle of the blaze.

COURTESY PHOTO: RANDY GREEN - The way Oregon battles wildfires is costing the state millions in both firefigthers and lost tourist dollars. Gov. Kate Brown has created a council to look at better ways to fight the annual scourge.SALEM — Oregonians saw $62 million in private grazing and timberland go up in flames this fire season.

Such seasons continue to grow worse, longer and more expensive in the state, posing more threats to life and property. Gov. Kate Brown has proposed a special council to take a new look at how the state fights fires and pays for that work.

The state Forestry Department reported to legislators recently that large fires cost the agency $102 million this year. The federal government will cover much of that, and private landowners chip in some, but the high price tag still creates a budgeting frenzy as the state waits for federal reimbursement.

Brown's proposed council is likely to look at whether the state is staffing fires efficiently. Every summer, desk-bound Forestry Department employees like accountants and human resources staff can be taken off their regular duties to help on fire crews. That is called a "militia model." Other states, like California, have a dedicated firefighting agency.

PMG/EO MEDIA/SRAs fire seasons grow longer, militia-style firefighting could actually cost the state more by taking employees off key non-fire functions of the department for months at a time.

The governor's council is likely to include officials from Oregon's tribes, state and federal forest agencies, environmental groups and landowners. Forest practices likely won't be part of council's review but could become a consideration.

Brown also wants the state to hire a consultant to analyze budgeting for fires. Oregon's byzantine array of reimbursements, borrowing and insurance burdens the state's general fund. From 2008 to 2012, annual fire costs in the state hovered at $20 million or less, according to state data. Costs spiked to $122 million in 2013, as fires in the Rogue Valley persisted. While expenses haven't reached that point again, they continue to stay above pre-2012 levels. The Forestry Department had to bump up its borrowing from the state treasury to pay this year's bills while waiting for the federal money.

"Payments to contractors and vendors must be made by on a timely basis," state analysts wrote in a recent report on the 2018 fire season. "Many people and businesses assisting with fighting large fires are self-employed or own small businesses and cannot wait to be paid until the department receives reimbursements."

And fire-induced cash flow issues aren't limited to the Forestry Department. The Oregon State Police feels the impact too. The state fire marshal's office, part of the state police, incurred about $32 million in unbudgeted expenses in 2017 and 2018 due to wildfires, according to legislative documents.

Losing tourist dollars

When fires threaten people and homes, the governor can call on the fire marshal to dispatch local firefighters to action and cover their costs. This year, about 1,000 firefighters protected 7,600 Oregon homes that were threatened by fires.

The federal government will cover about two-thirds of those costs, but not before next summer, when the state's two-year budget ends. The cost of fighting all wildfires, including federally managed fires, is estimated to be about $500 million this year.

The Legislature has appropriated about $3 million to help with projects on federal lands in Oregon. These include thinning and other measures that could reduce the risk of fires.

Travel Oregon, which promotes tourism, said in August that the state lost an estimated $51 million in tourism due to fires last year. Fires are worsening in the West — a combination of decades of postwar forest management policy and conditions exacerbated by climate change — and came into the spotlight last month as California dealt with the deadly Camp Fire, which resulted in at least 85 deaths.

"Forest management practices are at the center of all of our thoughts right now," said state Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, during a recent legislative hearing to vet the Forestry Department's request for funds to pay for the 2018 fire season.

Meanwhile, the land-use group 1,000 Friends of Oregon released a report Dec. 10 calling for the state to map wildfire risk across the state and avoid development in high-risk areas.

In 2015, about 107,000 Oregon homes were at high risk of being damaged by wildfires, according to a report that year from the Union of Concerned Scientists. More development in wildfire-prone areas means the risk of fire damage grows.

"Federal, state, local budgets have been woefully inadequate to cover firefighting costs, not to mention the costs of lost lives, homes, and businesses," said Russ Hoeflich, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Oregon, in a prepared statement. "We hope to see that change in 2019."

Reporter Claire Withycombe: cwithycombe@eomediagroup.com or 971-304-4148. Withycombe is a reporter for the East Oregonian working for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.