Oregon Wildfires

A September 2017 wildfire burns near Stevenson Wash., across the Columbia River, in the Columbia River Gorge above Cascade Locks.

A month after Gov. Kate Brown's Council on Wildfire Response raised eyebrows throughout the Oregon by estimating that it will take $4 billion over 20 years to improve the state's ability to respond to wildfires, the council this week released its recommendations on how that money should be spent.

At first glance, it appears the council has done solid work. Its report (a copy of the executive summary is attached to the online version of this editorial) suggests that the state focus on four broad goals:

• Creating fire-adapted communities.

• Restoring and maintaining resilient landscapes.

• Responding safely and effectively to wildfire.

• Developing cross-functional support systems to continue to develop these goals. (This is the spot in which members of the council make their case for continued task forces and whatnot, but this does include a reference to an intriguing proposal being kicked around at Oregon State University to develop a wildfire center to produce, capture and disseminate the best available science regarding wildfire. OSU would seem to be well suited for such a center.)

In all, the final report includes 37 recommendations and assigns priorities to each one: In all, 13 of the recommendations are rated as "highest." (The other priority levels are "very high," "high" and "moderate." Just one recommendation earned a "moderate" rating — that one calls for the Oregon Insurance Commission to monitor the property insurance market to ensure continued access to affordable insurance.)

The council said the highest priorities are working with power utilities to create risk mitigation plans, changing building codes to require defensible space around homes built near forests, reducing fuels within forests that cause catastrophic fires and educating the public on wildfire prevention.

That $4 billion price tag does not seem unreasonable, considering that it covers the costs of actively managing forests and rangelands and treating some 5.6 million acres. And even though the report does not identify sources for that funding, it makes a compelling case that the costs of wildfire to Oregonians are much greater; in fact, the report says, the average costs of wildfire (economic losses, lost taxes, damages to ecosystems, destruction of infrastructure and depreciated property values) are 11 times greater than the immediate costs of firefighting.

In an interview, Matt Donegan, the chairman of the council, said the state spent $533 million on fire suppression in 2018 and estimated the associated costs at about $6 billion. This year's fire season was milder, but it's a good bet that it also was atypical; the report says that climate change, population growth and record fuel levels have combined to create a growing wildfire threat in the West.

But although those numbers are persuasive, they don't make it any easier for legislators and other state officials to locate an additional $4 billion.

The problem here is that it would be easy to glance at the price tag, grimace, and set the report on a shelf at the Capitol to gather dust. That would be a mistake: A number of the recommendations in the report likely can be pursued at a relatively low cost. The report also suggests figuring out a way to treat 300,000 acres of state land each year at a cost of about $200 million. That's not peanuts, but it's easier than finding $4 billion at once. 

The report also urges that we not wait for that long-term funding model to fall into place: These treatments should occur each year, it says, "to the full extent possible through state funds."

We've seen a tendency on the governor's part from time to time to hold off on immediate action in favor of pulling together a working group to search for long-term answers. That's not necessarily a bad impulse, but it comes with the risk that nothing happens while we wait for that long-term strategy to fall into place — or, worse, that the strategy never is implemented. The nice thing about the council's recommendations is that they're not all or nothing; they include items that we can move on almost immediately. We shouldn't wait. Wildfires won't. (mm)

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