Oregon Gov. Kate Brown says the state needs to do more to reduce the threat of wildfire. She spoke Monday at the first meeting of a new council she created to improve the state’s wildfire response capabilities.
The 19-member council is made up of representatives from the timber industry, a variety of businesses, environmental groups, local governments, firefighting and public health agencies. The group will meet regularly before making recommendations to the governor this fall on how the state can improve its approach to wildfire.
“We know many thousands of acres of forestland are unhealthy due to past management practices, and we know we must do more,” Brown told the council. “Every single fire season since I became governor has been a historic fire season. Each season we’ve seen unprecedented damage to our homes, livelihoods and Oregon’s natural environment.”
Brown said bigger and more frequent wildfires are putting lives at risk while wildfire smoke is compromising public health. She created the Wildfire Response Council to make sure the state is following all the best practices and investing in the tools, technology and resources it needs to prepare for wildfires and fight them.
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“I am personally and professionally not willing to accept this pattern of wildfire and drought, and I don’t think anyone else in the room is, either,” she said. “We have to be proactive to get ahead of this threat.”
Oregon Fire Marshall Jim Walker and State Forester Peter Daugherty also spoke to the council and emphasized the need to reevaluate how the state responds to wildfire and how that response is funded.
“We’re a can-do agency, but we are challenged by the increasingly complex wildfire season,” Daugherty said. “Fire is our number one priority, but as our staff spend more time fighting fire our resources are increasingly stretched and other work is left behind.”
He and other leaders talked about the longstanding collaboration between the Oregon Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service and a desire to increase the pace of forest restoration through an ongoing federal forest restoration program.
Oregon has two dozen forest collaboratives that work with local communities on ways to reduce wildfire risk.
Daugherty noted this year Oregon updated its smoke management rules, which should allow for more prescribed burning to reduce fire risk on forestland throughout the state.
The council's agenda included a presentation from U.S. Forest Service scientist Paul Hessburg, who said prescribed burning creates 50 to 90 percent less smoke than wildfires.
He also noted Oregon needs to dramatically increase the acreage it is treating with prescribed burns to cover 40 to 50 percent of the landscape to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires in the future. Right now, he said, the number of acres burned by wildfire is expected to triple or quadruple in the next 30 years.
"This isn't settling out," Hessburg said. "It's just increasing right now."
Jim Hubbard, Under Secretary of Natural Resources and the Environment with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, noted that wildfire poses risks to water supplies, power and transportation systems and recreation, and he was glad to see all of those areas represented on the council.
“Smoke has been getting our attention,” Hubbard said. “We have larger, longer-duration fires, and we keep communities smoked in for a long time. Has the air cleared in Ashland yet?”
He and others suggested public-private partnerships could help remove trees and biomass from the forest to reduce the risk of wildfires while creating economic opportunities.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen, whose agency owns about 25 percent of the land in Oregon, said her approach to reducing wildfire risk is changing after federal legislation passed last year to allow the Forest Service to use disaster funding to fight wildfires.
“The problem is more dire than we’ve ever seen but the opportunity space and this right there under the leadership of your governor and what all of you are bringing is incredible,” she said. “We will set our priorities according to what you all want us to do.”