You can summarize all the predictions for how future wildfire seasons will play out in Oregon and throughout the West with just a few words: Bigger. Hotter. Longer.
Despite a strong year for snowpack, there’s no reason to think that this year’s fire season will be an exception. The state has seen 1,000 acres burn already this year.
And there’s no reason to doubt that the fire season next year will be any different; in fact, a warmer and drier than usual winter could add up to big trouble for Oregon and the West. It’s all part of what experts are calling the new normal for wildfires.
That’s why we need to think differently about how we react and respond to wildfire, and we need to think in two different tracks: First, we need to be sure that we have adequate resources on hand to fight the ones we know will erupt this season. We may be a little better prepared on this front this year, but every new batch of fires puts additional pressure on a system that already can be stretched pretty thin.
But, second, we need to prepare over the long haul for that new normal — and that includes efforts to increase the amount of thinning that takes place in forests that are choked with the undergrowth that fuels increasingly intense fires. It also includes work underway to increase the use of prescriptive burns to make those forests more resilient.
And it also includes work to build communities that are increasingly fire-resilient. Across the West, where we still like to build homes in the middle of vulnerable areas, this work likely will be challenging.
So we read with interest the story in today’s edition about efforts by a group of Oregon legislators to be sure that the state is ready to respond to wildfire this summer — but also to start thinking about fire differently over the long run.
Not surprisingly, many of the legislators involved in the current effort hail from southern Oregon, which has been hit hard in recent years by wildfire. These fires have had a dramatic effect on the area’s economy, with tourism taking a huge hit and institutions such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival suffering millions of dollars of losses from canceled shows. (The group of legislators includes Rep. Marty Wilde, the Democrat who represents southeast parts of Linn County.)
One of the legislators, Rep. Pam Marsh, an Ashland Democrat, is working to line up an additional $6.8 million in funding for wildfire mitigation and suppression. That seems like it might be a wise short-term investment, especially considering that the state spent some $514 million last year fighting fires.
And it seems like a better bet than Gov. Kate Brown’s budget recommendation: The governor has called for no additional funding to fight this year’s fires.
To be fair, Brown wants to invest money in longer-term efforts: She has created a wildfire council and will ask it to come up with policy recommendations, which presumably would need to be funded by a future legislative session. The council could turn out to be a vital resource in steeling Oregonians against future wildfire seasons, but we won’t know for sure until we see its work.
In the meantime, you can see why legislators from Southern Oregon are nervous about the governor’s flat firefighting budget.
So the state needs to do both: prepare for what this season brings and, at the same time, work with an eye toward future seasons. After all, when a wildfire is burning on the outskirts of your town, that’s a crisis that needs to be immediately addressed. But let’s also start taking the long-term steps that could prevent other towns from being threatened next year.