Proposed expansion of Ore. wildfire plan faces blowback

Bills proposed by state lawmakers would expand firefighting resources at the Department of Forestry and increase prescribed burns and forest thinning


Ted Sickinger
The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Legislators will consider several bills in the upcoming short session that could expand and overhaul the way Oregon works to fight – and prevent – wildfires.

The plans include an unprecedented effort to restore forest health through thinning, removing brush and small trees, and increasing prescribed burns. Over the next 20 years, supporters aim to do that work on 5.6 million acres of forest and rangelands -- an area equivalent to the state of New Jersey, or nearly 10 percent of Oregon’s entire land base.

Oregon lawmakers' plans to prevent and prepare for wildfires have raised financial concerns and received blowback from academics, fire experts and environmental activists. The plans include increasing prescribed burns and forest thinning, and expanding of firefighting resources at the Department of Forestry. (Photo/Oregon.gov)
Oregon lawmakers' plans to prevent and prepare for wildfires have raised financial concerns and received blowback from academics, fire experts and environmental activists. The plans include increasing prescribed burns and forest thinning, and expanding of firefighting resources at the Department of Forestry. (Photo/Oregon.gov)

The proposals also call for expanding firefighting resources at the Oregon Department of Forestry, putting more boots on the ground and modernizing equipment to put fires out when they’re small, thereby keeping costs low. And they would add administrative staff to make sure the state is promptly invoicing and collecting its firefighting costs – a problem that drove the Department of Forestry to the brink of insolvency last fall.

These were among the recommendations from a task force that Gov. Kate Brown empaneled last year to look at the state’s wildfire preparedness. They come against a backdrop of massively destructive and deadly fires in Australia and California and at a time when global warming, drought and more than a century of past firefighting policies are conspiring to extend the state’s fire season, increase its severity, choke big portions of the state with smoke, and drive firefighting costs ever higher.

Few issues, however, are more politically fraught in Oregon than forestry. So it’s no surprise that the plans face blowback from academics, fire experts and climate change and environmental activists.

Critics argue that forest thinning projects are expensive, have a low probability of success, can be ecologically destructive to forests and can reduce the carbon stores in Oregon forests more than the fire themselves. Strengthening firefighting capabilities, meanwhile, is just doubling down on the strategy that created the problem in the first place, they say.

As always, money is an issue. The governor’s 20-year forest treatment plan comes with a $4 billion price tag - $200 million a year – well beyond any realistic budget request. And almost all of the work would be on federal and private lands, raising the question of why Oregon taxpayers should pay for it.

Experts say the timber generated by thinning won’t come close to covering the costs to remove downed limbs and dead vegetation, particularly on east side forests and rangeland infested with less marketable trees like lodgepole pine, grand fir and juniper.

Meanwhile critics worry that fire prevention will be used as an excuse for backcountry clearcutting that will actually increase fire risks, reduce carbon stocks and have little impact on safety.

Wildfire is big business in rural Oregon, a source of jobs and capital in areas still struggling with the contraction of the wood products industry. Democrats are hopeful of bipartisan support to tackle the issue, and eager to leverage it to accomplish some of their other objectives.

To that end, the most recent version of Democrats’ divisive cap-and-trade policy dedicates a portion of revenues to wildfire prevention efforts. That enticement could bring in $25 to $35 million annually in the program’s first three years to support restoration work -- and maybe convince a few Republican lawmakers to stay in their seats for a vote on the climate change policy.

Yet others wonder why the state would start writing big checks to the Department of Forestry and significantly expand its mission after the financial and managerial troubles it has experienced in recent years. The agency’s troubles were featured in The Oregonian/OregonLive’s “Failing Forestry” series last fall.

“If, as the bill posits, the problems are in (the Department of Forestry), why do you think DOF can solve them?” Andy Stahl, a forestry activist from Eugene, recently wrote to lawmakers. “Incantations of ‘modernization’ and ‘efficiency’ don’t solve problems; people do. If you think DOF is poorly managed, change the people in charge of DOF.”

The policy proposals

Lawmakers will be looking at a slew of potential wildfire bills. The big concepts were discussed earlier this month at a meeting of the Senate Committee Interim Committee on Wildfire Prevention.

Senate Bill 1516 is sponsored by Sen. Herman Baertschiger, a Grants Pass Republican whose firefighting business (now his son’s) has contracted with the forestry department for years. He contends the agency faces a workforce crisis, with seasonal workers being gobbled up by the U.S. Forest Service or moving on to better paid work.

He wants to address the problem by replacing seasonal workers who typically work five months a year with 50 permanent positions in its fire division. Outside the fire season, he said, the new workers could be used to perform audits and help homeowners living near state forests to better protect their homes.

The bill also seeks to modernize the department’s aviation fleet. “The old fleet is 50 to 70 years old,” he said. “It’s going bye-bye. There’s nothing we can do about it… The new fleet, they’re more expensive toys.”

Baertschiger looks to pay for all this with general fund dollars, though the actual amounts aren’t specified in the bill.

“This is a not a new conversation in the state of Oregon… but we have to get to a point where we can agree and move forward,” Baertschiger said. “This model will not continue to play out for us very well in the future.”

Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, reprised an old debate, noting that 77% of the land the forestry department protects is private, and he was concerned about asking the public to subsidize private entities.

“That’s got to come into the equation of figuring out how to share those costs,” he said.

The second proposal, Senate Bill 1514, developed by Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, would use general fund dollars to pay for a handful of restoration projects in 2020 as a pilot project for the much broader thinning and fuel reduction program recommended by the governor’s wildfire council.

“We want to test drive some of these concepts and relationships in 2020 and come back to the 2021 session with some greater level of knowledge in preparation for what would likely be a much larger investment going forward,” Golden said.

The idea is to focus on two to five projects in areas adjacent to homes or critical infrastructure. Those could be on federal lands that have already been through an environmental review, in which case the state would look for an infusion of federal dollars – a critical element if it has any hope of hitting larger restoration goals.

The initial request in that bill is $1 million for the projects, though that’s a placeholder and could grow to $10 million or more, said Dylan Kruse, director of government affairs for the Portland-based nonprofit Sustainable Northwest, which helped write the draft legislation.

“This stuff needs public subsidy,” he said. “The vast majority should come from federal government, but it will also involve state and private investments to get to scale.”

Gov. Brown’s plan

The most sweeping legislation discussed by the committee was an omnibus proposal from the governor’s office based on 37 recommendations from wildfire council.

Senate Bill 1536 sets up a 300,000-acre annual target for thinning and controlled burn projects – quadrupling the number of acres being treated today. The estimated price tag: $200 million a year.

“She wants a sizeable chunk, a real commitment by the state for 2020 so she can go back to D.C. and ask the U.S. Forest Service for matching funds,” said Jason Miner, the governor’s natural resources advisor. “We expect at least a 1-to-1 match on that investment.”

The bill would require utilities to develop wildfire reduction plans, an idea borne of California’s recent experience with deadly fires caused by transmission lines. It calls for a new statewide plan to create safe zones around structures and help local government with risk planning and zoning.

The bill proposes improved building codes to make homes more fire resistant. It would set up a new task force on the health effects of wildfire smoke and direct investments in air filtration systems for vulnerable populations. And it calls for the forestry department to hire a consultant to perform a funding study looking at the benefits of state-funded firefighting activities and how Oregon’s system compares to other states.

SB 1536 doesn’t include 68 new fire-related positions at the forestry department, a recommendation from the wildfire council that could cost some $20 million annually. Miner said that would come in a separate budget request.

“We know these numbers are big,” he said, “and we know that we have to get started.”

Have we learned anything?

As with most debates around forestry, the state’s response to wildfire is politically, financially and ecologically controversial.

Few disagree that a big chunk of Oregon’s forests are ecologically out of whack: Too dense and laden with fuels after more than a century of aggressive firefighting and logging practices that have decreased forest resiliency to fire. Likewise, there’s general agreement that climate change, drought and encroaching development in the so-called wildland-urban interface are extending the fire season, and adding to its risk and cost.

But some suggest the state’s proposed response – specifically increasing its firefighting capacity and launching a mammoth restoration effort – show it has learned little in the last century.

Academic experts say any treatment work should be surgically targeted around communities at risk, with a focus on creating defensible space within 100 feet of structures; requiring building codes and funding retrofits that better protect homes and buildings; and severely restricting development in wildfire prone areas.

Opponents of the state’s wide-ranging restoration plan cite Jack Cohen, a retired fire science researcher with the U.S. Forest Service. Much of his work focused on why structures burn and how to prevent it.

Cohen says it’s become abundantly clear during the last several decades that no matter how many engines and aircraft they throw at the problem, there is little firefighters can do to suppress or control extreme wildfires.

His research showed that most homes and structures typically don’t burn because they’re overrun by wildfire. Instead, they often burn when wildfires are still more than a mile away, ignited by burning embers carried by strong winds.

That’s not a wildfire problem, he concludes, it’s a home ignition problem. And that’s where policymakers and property owners ought to be focusing their efforts.

“You can significantly reduce the ignition vulnerability of your house,” he said. “You have lots of choice and it’s usually not highly expensive.

Of course, Oregon’s wildfire problem isn’t limited to property damage. There is smoke intrusion, lost economic activity and health effects. The wildfire council concluded that those total costs are 11 times larger than the spiraling firefighting costs that get so much attention.

But critics of expanded firefighting efforts say it’s no panacea for those issues either. Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at the Geos Institute in Ashland, told the committee that in 2017 and 2018, smoke poured into the Rogue and Willamette valleys from climate-driven fires hundreds of miles away in British Columbia and California. “Please don’t promise what you cannot deliver.”

And critics say broad scale forest treatment programs would be an ineffective, needle-in-a-haystack approach to fire prevention that will waste money and result in negative ecological outcomes.

“We’re not real good at determining what’s going to burn and when,” said Bev Law, an emeritus professor in Oregon State University’s forestry school.

She cites past studies showing that up to 10 times as much area is thinned under the guise of preventing fire than will actually burn. Other critics say studies show the odds of a wildfire hitting a thinned forest are less than one in a hundred.

And forest restoration projects aren’t particularly durable.

“Treatments are only effective for 20 to 30 years” before shrubs and small trees start come back, Law said, “and that’s what ignites first.”

Finally, environmental and climate change activists worry that expanded restoration efforts will be an excuse to log backcountry areas, which will reduce forest carbon stocks and ultimately increase fire danger by opening up canopy, drying out the forest floor and allowing for increased wind speeds.

“I see a lot of logging happening in the name of wildfire prevention,” said Samantha Krop, an organizer with Cascadia Wildlands. “There’s a disconnect between what many of these proposals are purporting to do and what’s happening on the ground.”

Making the case

Matt Donegan, a forestry expert and chair of the governor’s wildfire council, acknowledges that 5.6 million acres is a huge area to treat, almost unimaginable given the current level of restoration work taking place annually.

But he insists the identified acreage is the product of a robust filtering process informed by forestry experts, academics and environmentalists. Their analysis identified 13.2 million acres of land with high fire risks. The state could let those acres burn, he said. But on vast portions of the landscape, the forest conditions are so bad that it would create unnaturally large, catastrophic fires.

By treating 40% of those acres, the council concluded, the state can have a dramatic impact on fire size and behavior. Meanwhile, he said there was agreement on prioritizing vulnerable acres in the wildland urban interface.

“This whole exercise is about prioritization, because we don’t have the resources” to even get started, Donegan said. “The state needs to make significant investments, because right now the main bottleneck is ODF capacity. They don’t have the manpower to implement these treatments.”

Another big challenge, he said, is convincing businesses, such as loggers, mills and truckers, that the state is serious and will mount a sustained effort that will support the capacity investments that businesses would need to make.

Donegan said the next step for the council is to build out a full financial plan and determine how much timber can be generated to help pay for the work while maintaining ecologically appropriate forest management.

He says the council would love to see $25 million invested in 2020, because federal agencies are looking for states to step up their restoration activities and would likely be ready with their own investments.

“It’s a legitimate question: How do you scale this up without sacrificing quality?” he said. At the same time, “we can’t be purists. We need to take action. This is a crisis.”

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©2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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