Sunday, March 19, 2023

By:  Erick Bengel

Rogue Valley Times

During a visit to Central Point Sunday, Deb Haaland, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, announced $21 million was on its way to Oregon to help reduce the risk of wildfires.

The secretary spoke at a media event in the Oregon Department of Forestry’s log cabin-esque crew house at the department’s command center.

Alongside her were U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, and Mike Shaw, chief of fire protection at ODF. Merkley sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee and chairs the Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.

Haaland said the money will go toward completing fuels management work on more than 170,000 acres in the state.

The funds come from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which contains $1.5 billion over five years to combat the wildfire threat on several fronts, from prevention and mitigation to firefighter response.

Since December, $278 million has been allocated. This includes a $50 million allocation announced Friday that will, among other things, secure remote sensing equipment that detects wildfires; provide communities with slip-on water tanks that turn trucks into fire rigs; and boost the pay of federal wildland firefighters, whose fire seasons, year after year, begin earlier and end later.

“We’re like fire years instead of fire seasons anymore,” Haaland said. “I know that Oregon, unfortunately, knows this all too well, with so little room for error.”

Oregon is also among 13 states that will benefit from a pilot program supporting projects aimed at fuel reduction — that is, reducing vegetation that can fuel fires — on private lands.

“We must remain steadfast in our commitment to wildland fire preparedness, mitigation and resilience,” she said. “We at the Department of the Interior are doing everything we can to work with the states, Tribes, local governments to reduce these risks and support the firefighting workforce.”

Sunday’s event took place on Day 3 of Haaland’s three-day trip to Oregon. She visited Bend Friday to discuss the interior department’s investments in the state’s outdoor recreation economy. She visited Crater Lake National Park Saturday.

In Central Point, Shaw spoke first.

Though snowpack in Southern Oregon is higher than in recent years, he said, “I do project that we’re going to have another challenging fire season.”

Climate change has become inescapable in Southern Oregon, where drought conditions have persisted since 2019 and wildfires have become commonplace.

“‘All hands on deck’ is the approach that we’re taking, and all wildland fire agencies are working together,” he said.

In recent years, wildfire smoke has covered the region in an orange-gray haze, forcing residents to stay indoors for days and choking off business and tourism.

The 2020 Almeda and South Obenchain fires that displaced thousands of people brought home the risks that wildfires and a warming climate pose.

Last summer’s Rum Creek Fire, sparked by lightning, torched more than 21,000 acres near Galice.

Haaland, the first Native American to serve in a presidential cabinet, had come from a briefing with fire response coordinators, state leaders and others who confront the wildfire threat. “‘Collaboration’ is the word that was most used in that briefing,” she said.

“One thing from our conversation is profoundly clear, that climate change will continue to make fires in the West larger and that we must continue to invest in conservation of our ecosystems. Nature is our best ally in the fight against climate change.”

Will it be possible to tell if the investment in combating wildfire is working when the climate itself is in flux? How will policy makers track progress?

In an interview afterward, Merkley said people can look at such markers as the number of acres that have been treated through prescribed burning, thinning or mowing. They can also look at the number of wildfires that erupt in Oregon, or at the number of wildland fire personnel dispatched, along with their equipment, to the incidents.

“There are ways of measuring it, even with the ups and downs of fire season,” he said.

The public conversation around climate change has evolved in the time Merkley has been in office.

Years ago, in the town halls the senator conducts every year in every Oregon county, the subject produced consternation, he said. People would ask, “‘Is that really real?’ Because there (was) a lot of messaging coming out of the fossil fuel world saying it’s not real,” he recalled.

“But now I don’t get that reaction at all,” he continued. “In those forums, generally the conversation is about the impact that we see on our farming, on our fishing and on our forests. And people who live in rural Oregon see those impacts every single day. They see it through the drought. They see it through the fires. They see it through the beetles attacking our trees. Over on the coast, we’re seeing very significant changes in the warmth and the acidity of the ocean affecting our ocean ecosystem. So it’s everywhere we look.”

Haaland said, “The science is such in 2023 that it’s very difficult to deny that climate change is happening. And people who do deny it aren’t really looking at the science and the reality of the situation.”