Oregon Governor Searches for Ways to Stem Wildfires

“We have to re-examine how we fight fire,”


This Sept. 4, 2017, file photo provided by KATU-TV shows a wildfire as seen from near Stevenson, Wash., across the Columbia River, burning in the Columbia River Gorge above Cascade Locks, Ore. A teenager who started the major wildfire in the scenic Columbia River Gorge in Oregon has been ordered to pay restitution for at least the next decade, though it’s unlikely the boy will ever cover his nearly $37 million bill. (Tristan Fortsch/KATU-TV via AP, File)


By ANDREW SELSKY, Associated Press

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The federal government needs to send more resources to do more forest thinning on public lands in Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown said Thursday as she searches for ways to stem wildfires that are getting bigger and more dangerous.

One possible option Brown said she would consider is allowing some fires to burn, but keeping them away from populated areas, as well as prescribed burns and increased thinning.

“Fire is an instrumental part of maintaining a landscape, a healthy landscape,” Brown told reporters in a conference call. But she is being cautious about the approach, citing a megafire in 2017 that wasn’t immediately snuffed out and that threatened the town of Brookings on the southern Oregon coast.

“I still feel the pain of the Chetco Bar fire,” she said, referring to the blaze that scorched 190,000 acres over several months.

Wildfire experts like John Bailey, an Oregon State University professor of silviculture and fire management, say fires make forests more fire-resilient and healthy. They advocate using prescribed burns more aggressively.

As part of her efforts, Brown announced Wednesday an executive order establishing the Oregon Wildfire Response Council, tasked with evaluating the current response system to large fires.

“We have to re-examine how we fight fire,” Brown said Thursday, noting the current model has been used for a century. She said federal public lands have been mismanaged for many years.

Since the 1970s, there has been little timber harvesting on federal lands, with a resulting increase of 57 percent more standing timber in the United States than existed in 1953, according to a study by Donald Healy, a forestry expert from Lynnwood, Washington, who formerly worked for wood products company Boise Cascade. He said the situation has “set the stage for disastrous forest fires.”

The council Brown established is to make recommendations in September on the future of Oregon’s wildfire response infrastructure. She said Democrats and Republicans will be members as well as Native Americans, and that it will ramp up quickly.

If its recommendations require changes in state law, legislation could be prepared for the Legislature in time for its 2020 session, Brown said. Some recommendations could be handled by executive order, though determining funding could take a year or two.

Council chairman Matt Donegan should also make sure federal partners are fully engaged, Brown said.

The U.S. Forest Service doesn’t currently dedicate enough resources to properly thin national forests, Brown complained in the conference call. U.S. Forest Service land comprises about 14 million acres in Oregon, or roughly one-quarter of the state.

Brown and the governors of California and Washington state wrote President Donald Trump on Jan. 8 about the issue.

“The federal government is a major landowner and a critical partner in preventing, fighting, and recovering from wildfires,” Brown, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee told Trump.

They asked the president to double the investment for managing federal forests in the three states, noting that the federal forest management budgets have remained flat in recent years.

Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., of Grants Pass, said he’s encouraged by the governor’s actions.

“This is a great first step, but we need to take a serious look at how we manage our forests, including creating a long term 100-year plan to prevent these massive fires from occurring in the first place,” Baertschiger said.


Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky

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