State Forester Peter Daugherty and Doug Grafe, Chief of Fire Protection of the State Department of Forestry (ODF), appeared before three interim legislative committees on September 18, the first day of September Legislative Days.

The legislature convenes its interim committees periodically on three consecutive days between sessions, rather than scattering individual meetings during the interim, which used to be the common practice. The next set of Legislative Days is November 13-15.

The two ODF witnesses were called to discuss the obvious: the severe season of wildfires still underway.

If you have been keeping up with AOC Policy Manager Susan Morgan’s daily reports you are fully aware of the enormous cost in dollars, to resources, and to Oregonians this season has been. As of September 20th, across all jurisdictions in Oregon, 657,000 acres have burned. In addition, $340 million has been spent to fight these fires. ODF reports that one of the drivers is lightning strikes (some 37,155 from June 1 to September 13) coupled with a heat wave setting records on August 1, 2, and 3, and September 1 and 2.

Oregon_Acres Burned_2017 09 20

The Joint Interim Ways & Means Subcommittee on Natural Resources, the Senate Interim Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, and the House Interim Committee on Energy and the Environment heard Mr. Daugherty and Grafe lay out preliminary statistics to date. Some examples:

  • Fire season began early on the east side, but the majority of damage and loss was in heavily timbered areas on the west side.
  • ODF-protected lands are faring better than federal lands, with “only” 42,000 acres burned at a net cost of $31.5 million so far. Their incident crews have put out 96 percent of fires on 10 acres or less (809 fires caught in the initial or extended attack).
  • The State Forester testified that his agency does not have a sustainable force to deal with events of this size. Their resources are fully extended.
  • When asked to explain the stark difference in success on ODF-protected lands versus federal lands, the State Forester stated that federal forces are part of the entire coordinated effort, but that federal land fires start on wilderness in remote, steep, and rugged terrain, while the ODF-protected lands are roaded and easier to access. Mr. Grafe added that the federal government does not have a “let it burn” policy on resource lands.
  • State Forester Daugherty noted challenges to minimize wildfire risk and damage: increase the pace and scale of logging on federal lands; create more defensible space in wildland interface areas; and the lack of agreement on treatment of the west side landscape.

Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee Chair Michael Dembrow announced that during November Legislative Days his committee will take a deep look at this issue and is considering appointing a work group on the subject. Senator Betsy Johnson stated that bad federal policy and practice are to blame, and that she intended to form a group very soon to focus on the issue.

The State Forester stated that there will be a final report on this fire season after it is over and his staff has had time to rest.

Contributed by: Gil Riddell | AOC Policy Manager