Merkley addresses wildfire prevention

As the weather heats up and forests begin to dry out, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, has wildfires on his mind.

As of Thursday three fires — near La Pine, Klamath Falls and Prospect — are already burning in Oregon. Merkley hopes legislation he is sponsoring will help address the growing problem.

“The speed with which fire season is expanding and the number of fires starting early is pretty shocking when you look at historical trends,” he said on a phone call with journalists on Thursday.

Merkley introduced the Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act in 2018 and plans to reintroduce it again this year after it stalled the first time. Among the provisions of the act are more money to the Forest Service for wildfire prevention, reauthorization of the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program and the creation of a stewardship fund for counties.

Merkley said on Thursday that proactive measures, such as forest thinning, removing underbrush and prescribed burns can help halt a wildfire in its tracks and provide space for firefighters to get in and effectively fight the fires.

The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program brings stakeholders ranging from environmentalists to the logging industry to the table to create and implement plans for thinning and other preventative measures. Merkley said Oregon has three such collaborations, and so far collaborations across the country have been almost universally successful at avoiding a court challenge.

“What we’re finding is that where the collaborations operate, there are more projects and the projects are of larger size,” he said.

He said Oregon has a backlog of 2.1 million acres of forestland that are ready to be treated as soon as the funding is available. There is $623 million in the 2019 appropriations bill for thinning and other preventative strategies, and Merkley said he hopes to see an even bigger increase in 2020.

He is also pushing for the federal government to use disaster relief funds to repay the Forest Service the $720 million it borrowed from other funds to fight forest fires last year. The current disaster relief bill Congress is considering would also provide relief for wine growers who were hurt by smoke damage from last year’s season.

Merkley said the disaster bill has been held up over disagreements about aid to Puerto Rico but Republicans have indicated those should be resolved soon.

Previously, Merkley had helped get $7 million appropriated to training National Guard members in wildfire-prone states to help fight forest fires. He announced that 230 Oregon National Guard members were trained in March and another 125 would be trained in July.

“They’re ready to take on the challenges we’re going to see in the months ahead,” Merkley said.

As for the county stewardship fund, Merkley said he has heard from town halls in timber counties that stewardship funds that pay private companies to thin forests don’t benefit local communities. Currently the federal government receives some of the revenue from the thinning while 25 percent goes back toward more thinning. Under Merkley’s Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act, counties would receive a grant equal to the 25 percent to help make up for lost timber revenues.

Merkley said he and his wife Mary have had two trips to the Pacific Crest Trail canceled due to smoke from wildfires, an experience that is a “personal symbol” of the negative effects of a worsening fire season.

Oregon wildfire costs hit a record high of $514 million in 2018.