BEND, OR – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, joined by local leaders in the effort to manage wildfires in Central Oregon, today announced introduction of the Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act, a bill that would reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, and the smoke and economic losses that they cause.
“Folks here in Central Oregon and all across our state know firsthand that increasingly severe wildfires pose major threats to the health and economies of our communities,” Merkley said. “Even areas not directly impacted by flames have been inundated with smoke, putting the health of our families, our recreation economy, and our crops at risk. If we don’t want these catastrophic fires to become a staple of western summers, we need to make critical investments without delay, including increasing resources to make our forests healthier.”
“The health of our forest is directly connected to the quality of life in Central Oregon,” said Mayor Sally Russell, who co-chairs the Deschutes Forest Collaborative Project. “As the risk of fire moving in to our community becomes greater, the work the Deschutes Forest Collaborative has done allows for safer urban-wildland interface. Senator Merkley’s funding and support for collaboratives on a sustained, year-after-year basis is critical in the face of climate change, and I applaud him and thank him for his work.”
“The collaborative has brought together people with diverse views of the forest and found common ground solutions for problems that used to slow projects down,” said Ed Keith, County Forester for Deschutes County, who co-chairs the Deschutes Forest Collaborative Project. “Continuing to invest in this work will lead to healthier and safer communities and forests.”
“One of the ways we’ve been successful with connecting with the community’s goals and objectives is though the Deschutes Forest Collaborative Project,” said John Allen, U.S. Forest Service Forest Supervisor for Deschutes National Forest. “This diverse group of citizens and organizations really represents the full breadth of what people want from their public lands and national forest. It is very important to me as the forest supervisor that if we take management action on public lands, we have community support.”
“It takes strong relationships and cooperation between stakeholders to combat these fires. Not just when the smoke is in the air, but year round,” said Tim Craig, Deputy Chief of Operations for Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire District. His neighborhood had to be evacuated during the Milli Fire in 2017. “Local agencies must work closely with our Federal partners in planning and preparation for wildfire.”
Due to hotter and drier climate through much of the West, the risk of severe and catastrophic fires continues to grow. Last year, 58,083 fires burned in communities across America, resulting in nearly 8.8 million acres burned. More than 2,000 of those fires occurred in Oregon, burning just under 900,000 acres of land. By May 2019, Oregon has already experienced five major fires, all before the beginning of the traditional fire season.
And yet, the Forest Service still lacks the funding and the boots on the ground to implement badly needed fuels-reduction projects—even though more than 2 million acres in Oregon have already been cleared for this work.
Merkley’s Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act would create economic opportunities in forest-dependent communities while reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires by:
- Creating a $1 billion fund to provide stability and allow the Forest Service to increase the pace and scale of catastrophic wildfire reduction projects.
- Empowering federal agencies to work with local communities to plan and prepare for wildfires.
- Permanently reauthorizing the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, allowing more projects to receive funding in a given fiscal year.
- Creating a County Stewardship Fund that would provide payments to counties equal to 25 percent of stewardship contract receipts on federal land within their counties.