Merkley touts Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act

BEND — With a Deschutes National Forest prescribed burn project as a backdrop, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, announced Wednesday his Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act to reduce the risk of large fires that endanger property, wildlife and watersheds.

Merkley addressed members of the press, in person and via a live video stream on Facebook, at the West Bend prescribed burn unit where 284 acres were burned at the end of April. Merkley touted timber harvest, thinning and prescribed fires as ways to reduce the risk of out-of-control wildfires that can quickly consume entire neighborhoods when fuel conditions, wind and fire starts combine.

The senator said his bill would pump a billion dollars into fuels treatment projects across the country.

“With a guaranteed increase of a billion dollars a year in fuels reduction and new authorities and incentives for communities to work to improve the resilience of their forests, we can stop catastrophic wildfires from becoming a staple of western summers,” Merkley said.

Merkley was joined by forest, wildfire and local leaders. John Allen, forest supervisor for the Deschutes National Forest, said it is too early to predict the fire season, but prescribed fire is an example of how forest managers intend to protect values at risk.

“The West Bend prescribed burn project is essential in our eyes and a natural part of ecosystems,” Allen said. “Bringing fire back makes a healthy forest more resilient for long-term conditions.”

Allen credited the Deschutes Forest Collaborative, an assembly of forest managers, private citizens, industry and environmentalists who meet regularly to discuss forest management.

“It’s very, very important to me if we are going to take action, we need broad support,” Allen said.

Prescribed fires, like the West Bend Project, reduces the risk of wildfire affecting private property, improves wildlife habitat and creates safer places for firefighters to work.

“As chair of the collaborative, I recognize the need to educate the community about the work in our forest,” said Bend Mayor Sally Russell, a co-chair of the collaborative.

Before the collaborative was formed nearly a decade ago Ed Keith, Deschutes County forester, mill operators and the representatives from what he called the “environmental industry” were only meeting each other in the courtroom.

“Projects were getting slowed down or not happening,” he said.

Keith said 18,000 acres of fuels treatment are planned for the West Bend project area as well as areas outside of Sisters.

Reducing the number of trees per acre reduces fires from moving through the crowns, lowering the severity and intensity of the destruction of a wildfire. With the support of the collaborative members, more acres are being treated at a faster pace.

“The end result is our forests are healthier and safer, and we are benefiting wildlife and water quality,” Keith said.

Merkley said he supports the work the collaboratives have accomplished throughout Oregon, supported, in part, with federal money through the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program.

Hotter and drier fire seasons and the lack of thinning and harvest in the national forests are one of the regular topics addressed by collaborative groups. He said the additional funding for fuels reduction included in his bill will help get the projects the collaboratives discuss in the boardroom become realities in the forest.

“The bill’s funding and having a collaborative to be able to do its work is really critical as we move into the future with climate change,” Merkley said.