U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley warned that difficult days are ahead for Oregonians after they emerged Friday from a wildfire briefing with federal and state officials.
Fire season is picking up speed as higher temperatures and severe drought conditions have already contributed to at least three wildfires that burned in different parts of the state. That has federal, state and local fire officials on high alert, as Wyden said “They have been working around the clock now for months to deal with the very difficult days that are ahead for Oregonians.”
Both U.S. senators said they have shifted their priorities this wildfire season. They said they want to make sure federal money set aside for fire prevention funds does not get tapped for other uses, as unprecedented events like last year’s wildfires are costing the state more and more money to fight.
“We’ve got more than two weeks until the first day of summer, and on this fire forecast what we heard, for example, is drought is getting worse week by week,” Wyden said.
Wyden, who is on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is working to pass a bill that would increase the acreage burned in prescribed fires as a way to reduce hazardous fuels and reduce wildfire risk.
Another area he is concentrating on: bringing back the Civilian Conservation Corps, with funds for natural forest resource management and conservation work to help prevent or limit the scale of wildfires.
“What I hope to get the support of all the Western senators for, is the bringing back the 21st century Civilian Conservation Corp,” Wyden said. “So, we can put thousands of young people in the woods.”
During last year’s Labor Day fires, Merkley said, he traveled up and down the state for more than 600 miles and was never out of the smoke— something he said he has never experienced before. That prompted him to change his priorities this year as chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that writes budgets for the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Forest Service. Merkley pledged to secure resources the state needs and address the issues in the forest.
“We need to make sure the resources are there, both on the front end for a lot more forest management, a lot more thinning, fire resilience, but also making sure the resources are there to fight the fires when we have a rough fire season, which were concern about having this coming year,” Merkley said.
On Thursday, state agencies and emergency response agencies also stated they are beginning to prepare for what could be a challenging fire season.
Oregon Department of Forestry Fire Protection Division Chief Doug Grafe said the state is looking at hotter than normal temperatures for the next three months, and has already seen more than double the number of wildfires typical for this time of year.
“We’re close to 300 fires responded to and 2,000 acres burned. Our ten-year average year-to-date on ODF protection is 120 fires and around 480 acres,” Grafe said. “That’s two times the number of fires and four times the number of acres burned. So, everything we see there leading up to a difficult season is upon us.”
State Fire Marshall Mariana Ruiz-Temple said the agency is transitioning from looking at fire seasons to regarding the risk of wildfire as a year-round undertaking. State agencies and emergency responders said they will continue to work with fire officials at the possibility of fighting more fires than last year and alerting the public to be prepared for emergency and evacuation alerts.