by Rep. Pam Marsh

Sunday, March 24th 2019Mail Tribune

Last summer, Southern Oregon suffered through six weeks of choking smoke. A month later we watched from a distance as Paradise, California, a town much like communities in our region, burned to the ground. Smoke and fire threaten our health, our economy and our future.

The gravity of our situation is reflected in the numbers. Oregon wildfires cost a whopping $514 million in 2018 and that half billion is not the end of our troubles. Our fire seasons are longer than in the past, more ferocious, less predictable, and made worse by climate change. Fire and smoke costs and impacts on our lives will increase.

Our Southern Oregon community is strong and resilient. We’ve come together to understand the multiple issues involved in smoke and fire, and to try to identify pragmatic steps to keep our community safe. But we can’t do that alone. We need the State of Oregon to step up with smart investments that will help us confront the fires we know are coming.

The state’s new Wildfire Council, established via executive order by Gov. Kate Brown and just getting underway, has been tasked with developing long-term recommendations to address these new fire seasons. I’m serving as an ex-officio member of that group. I expect the council to come up with innovative strategies and funding to increase the pace and scale of prevention and restoration activities, and to tackle the subject of firefighting operations.

In the meantime, the Oregon Department of Forestry must have adequate funding to implement fire protection and preparedness over the next two years. The need is urgent. ODF also requires resources now to respond to the fires that we will likely face in just a few months. These investments will leverage partnerships between the state and federal governments, community leaders, forest collaboratives, and diverse expertise in the nonprofit and business community.

After conversation with many stakeholders, I am supporting a $6 million budget package to fund four critical areas of need:

Provide more resources for the Oregon Department of Forestry. We need staff to lead firefighting, engage landowners in preparing for fire, implement restoration treatments in at-risk forests, and ensure that Oregon’s forest resources are protected.

Supplement front-line fire resources, including two additional single-engine air tankers to be based in Southern Oregon, along with a Helitac unit and 10 seasonal firefighters, to be positioned in La Grande.

Fund Community Resiliency and Smoke Impact Mitigation grants. Forest restoration efforts across the state, including the Ashland Fire Resiliency project, depend on controlled burns to clear slash and restore ecosystem health. This funding will help communities plan and implement smoke mitigation strategies to protect vulnerable residents and to inform and educate citizens about the use of controlled fire as an essential forest management tool. (The Department of Environmental Quality has already established rules governing these burns to protect communities from undue smoke impact.)

Support landscape analysis and mapping. Oregon is home to broad and beautiful swaths of forestland. We need to understand where our most at-risk landscapes and communities lie. Statewide mapping will also be used to prioritize necessary forest restoration projects.

Living with the threat of smoke and fire will be challenging. Last summer was depressing and scary. But over the past six months, we’ve begun to identify strategies that will keep our region as safe as possible. Now we need the State of Oregon to help us move forward.

You will find more details on the Forest Fire and Resilience Investment Package here:

Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, represents District 5 in the Oregon Legislature.