Editor’s note: This story is part of a series looking at what voters say are the biggest problems facing Oregon right now, and what Oregon’s next governor might do about them.

A massive wildfire in Oregon last summer burned across hundreds of thousands of acres in what became the country’s largest wildfire at the time. The year before that, thousands of homes were decimated by multiple wildfires across the state over Labor Day Weekend.

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Oregon wildfires have become increasingly catastrophic every year, and scientists say they’re only going to get worse.

In this file photo from Sept. 9, 2020, Chance Johnson hugs Sarah Hunter after the two loaded a horse into a trailer to be evacuated from Canby, Oregon. In a survey of likely Oregon voters, 61% said forest fires are a very serious issue in the state.

In this file photo from Sept. 9, 2020, Chance Johnson hugs Sarah Hunter after the two loaded a horse into a trailer to be evacuated from Canby, Oregon. In a survey of likely Oregon voters, 61% said forest fires are a very serious issue in the state.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

But you wouldn’t know it by following the state’s gubernatorial primary.

Few governor candidates list wildfires among their top priorities. Even former House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, one of the more prominent GOP candidates, doesn’t mention wildfires among a long list of issues she’d tackle if elected. Drazan grew up in Klamath County, where the 410,000 acre Bootleg Fire destroyed more than 160 homes last year.

OPB invited governor candidates to answer a questionnaire laying out where they stand on the issues voters say are most important to them. Of the responses, just Curry County Commissioner Court Boice made a point of discussing wildfires. Among what he considers the state’s top challenges, the Republican writes only: “CATASTROPHIC FIRE DANGER - RISKS.” But he doesn’t consider himself a serious contender.

Related: OPB coverage of the May 2022 election

Democratic candidates Tina Kotek and Tobias Read list wildfires among their overarching concerns about climate change, which both say they plan to address through investments in renewable energy — a key appeal to voters in metropolitan areas.

But wildfires appear to be a specific concern to Oregon voters. OPB commissioned DHM Research to survey potential Oregon voters about the issues they are most concerned about. Of the 600 people surveyed, 61% said they believed forest fires were a “very serious” issue.

How serious an issue are forest fires in Oregon?

Source: DHM Research survey of Oregonians commissioned by OPB, overall margin of error 4%

For Rep. Pam Marsh, a Democrat in Ashland (who isn’t running for governor), the topic of wildfires is all-encompassing. Her region has suffered through year after year of choking wildfire smoke, to the extent that its tourism economy now adapts its peak summer schedule to when the air is safe to breathe.

In 2020, the massive Almeda Fire decimated about 2,600 homes across the Rogue Valley overnight, triggering a national disaster declaration. Many of those homes belonged to low-income families, some of whom are still living in disaster trailers and struggling through a complex bureaucratic process for getting federal aid.

Marsh said that unless you’re living with the risk of wildfire and the reality of fire impacts, it’s difficult to have a deep understanding of the issue.

“If you haven’t been immersed in that world, likely you’re still thinking about this as a single-dimensional problem and not understanding all the parts that have to be addressed in order to keep communities as protected as possible,” Marsh said.

How much do you think forest management practices have contributed to severe wildfires in Oregon?

Source: DHM Research survey of Oregonians commissioned by OPB, overall margin of error 4%

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For her and most wildfire experts, the key to addressing dangerous wildfires is through evidence-based forest management practices. That could include thinning forests, encouraging a diverse ecosystem to thrive, and even using fire as a tool to manage overgrowth.

“Where a whole lot of the solid science comes down to is, making sure that forests that are overgrown have some thinning and that we really take care of the undergrowth using prescriptive burning,” Marsh said. “It’s pretty clear that one or the other isn’t good enough.”

Joseph Powell stands among his neighbors’ destroyed homes at Talent Mobile Estates in Talent, Ore. on October 13, 2020. Powell’s home was one of only a few that the Almeda Fire left standing.

Joseph Powell stands among his neighbors’ destroyed homes at Talent Mobile Estates in Talent, Ore. on October 13, 2020. Powell’s home was one of only a few that the Almeda Fire left standing.

April Ehrlich / JPR News

Senate Bill 762, passed by lawmakers during last year’s Oregon legislative session, dedicates $220 million to about a dozen government agencies to do just that. It also helps communities reduce wildfire fuel to prevent another incident like the Almeda Fire.

Marsh said the next governor will oversee how SB 762 funds are applied. That governor will also help roll out the most contentious part of the bill: mapping Oregon’s wildfire-prone areas and deciding what rules they need to follow to strengthen their properties against wildfire. Those rules could include requiring homeowners to build with only fire-resistant materials, or clearing vegetation from around their homes.

How much do you think natural variations in the environment have contributed to severe wildfires in Oregon?

Source: DHM Research survey of Oregonians commissioned by OPB, overall margin of error 4%

Sen. Jeff Golden, also a Democrat from Ashland, helped create that part of the bill.

“We have an existential crisis here, and it’s going to take some give on all our parts, including give on what I’d most like to see around my individual house,” Golden told OPB last year.

But not everyone is on board with the plan, including nonaffiliated governor candidate Betsy Johnson. Johnson, a longtime state lawmaker, is attempting to collect enough signatures to make the November general election ballot.

“If Senator Golden thinks for a minute that I’m going to cut down the 200-year-old, 200-foot-tall old-growth ponderosa pine in my yard, he is mistaken,” Johnson said last year in an interview with a local radio program.

Several Oregon communities already participate in a national program that encourages landowners to make their homes fire resilient. The program doesn’t suggest property owners remove large old-growth trees because they’re not usually a wildfire hazard. Rather, the program suggests homeowners manage excessive undergrowth by thinning trees and brush.

Related: Grant money will help homes and offices affected by 2020 wildfires to be more fire-resistant

Across the candidate pool, Kotek and Read have the most experience in wildfire legislation. Read, the state treasurer, co-chaired the governor’s Wildfire Economic Recovery Council after the 2020 Labor Day fires, and Kotek was House speaker when the legislature passed SB 762. Kotek voted in favor of it, as did Drazan when she was minority leader.

Whoever the next governor is, they’ll work closely with Doug Grafe, whose position as the state’s “wildfire czar” was created by SB 762. Grafe says that although this historic law will help Oregon meet its critical goals for wildfire protection, the legislation is not enough for the long run.

“This is a one-time investment for the biennium, and the Legislature will deliberate on where we go from here,” Grafe said.

How much do you think climate change has contributed to severe wildfires in Oregon?

Source: DHM Research survey of Oregonians commissioned by OPB, overall margin of error 4%

Grafe will work along with the governor’s wildfire council to help the next governor determine the state’s next steps. Together they’ll be tasked with finding funding in the years to come, so the state doesn’t stop its current momentum.

Mike Shaw, chief of fire protection for the Oregon Department of Forestry, says much of that momentum is thanks in part to Gov. Kate Brown’s efforts. (Brown, a Democrat, cannot seek reelection this year because of term limits.)

“Our current governor has been extremely a really strong advocate for the needs of wildfire protection agencies across the state, and has really put in a lot of energy to help further the evolution of wildfire protection in Oregon,” Shaw said. “I’m hopeful that whoever the next governor is that they take it as serious as this governor has, because she has done a really good job of keeping it elevated.”

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