Central Oregon to receive $18 million for wildfire resiliency efforts

Hermiston Herald

The federal government announced Thursday it will pour $18.2 million in new funds toward wildfire resiliency in Central Oregon.

The funding is part of a larger $38 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to protect Oregon forests from the impacts of climate change and wildfire, according to a joint statement from Oregon’s U.S. senators, Democrats Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden.

In addition to the funding for Central Oregon, the Klamath River Basin will receive $15.5 million and the Mt. Hood area $5 million.

The funds come to Oregon through a 10-year strategy designed to improve forest health and protect communities from wildfire. Central Oregon, the Klamath Basin and Mt. Hood are three of 21 priority areas in the U.S. that receive funding under the wildfire crisis program.

In 2022, the U.S. Forest Service announced Central Oregon would receive $41.3 million over three years to fund its wildfire resiliency programs.

The funds are primarily designed to fund projects that improve forest health, including thinning operations that open up a forest canopy and reduce the risk of a dangerous crown fire that can spread quickly and threaten lives and property. Priority projects are located on the Deschutes National Forest and the Crooked River National Grassland.

“This is important across the Central Oregon landscape because we need to minimize fire risk for communities,” said Kassidy Kern, public affairs officer for the Ochoco National Forest and Crooked River Grasslands. “That means we need to protect homes and public infrastructure and restore health to our ecosystem. That is the heart of the idea behind the wildfire crisis strategy.”

In the Deschutes National Forest, the funds will be used for commercial thinning, brush mowing and prescribed burning, work that is currently underway to protect homes and public infrastructure. On the Crooked River National Grassland, the focus is on removing juniper trees and the treatment of invasive weeds. Funding is also available to collect native seeds for future restoration work.

Some residents living near areas where prescribed burns take place have been critical of the fuel reduction projects that have ramped up in recent years, saying too much smoke enters communities, threatening public health. 

Kern contends that forests in Central Oregon naturally evolved with wildfire and need to burn periodically to improve their health and reduce the risk of large-scale fire. 

“Our fire-adapted eco-system evolved over eons with fire,” said Kern. “Whether that was cultural burning by indigenous people or natural fires through lightning starts, that is how our ecosystem has evolved. It was with Euro Americans that this really changed, so it’s on us to try to mimic those results we would have gotten from other cultural burning or natural ignitions to restore forest health and minimize fire risk.”