Oregon, Washington Firefighters Assist Alaska As Oregon’s Fire Budget Fizzles

Over 1,000 firefighters from Oregon and Washington headed to Alaska to help battle a spate of wildfires caused by lightning strikes. At the same time, officials from vulnerable parts of Oregon worry that this state is not doing enough to protect themselves from wildfire risks.  

According to the Bureau of Land Management, dozens of fires across Alaska are currently burning over 600,000 acres, and lightning strikes have started as many as 11 fires in only three days. Along with firefighters, Oregon is also sending professional fire managers and helicopters. Other government organizations, like the Alaska National Guard, are also being mobilized to assist.  

One lesser-known casualty of Oregon’s cap and trade bill, which failed in June after a nine day walkout by Republican Senators, was a $6.8 million bill to thin forests in southern Oregon as a method of wildfire prevention. Rep. Pam Marsh (D-Ashland) championed the bill, as her district is dealing with high levels of smoke pollution from wildfires.   

Marsh said it was “very disheartening” to see partisan politics snuff out a bill designed to prevent health damage caused by smoke. Ashland saw around 40 days of smoke-filled air each of the last two summers, and locals like Ashland family physician Justin Adams say the effects of smoke on people, especially those with preexisting respiratory diseases, were tangible.  

“It was essentially like they’d started smoking again for two months,” said Adams.    

Marsh noted to reporters that the state spent nearly half a billion dollars on wildfires last year but it would be smarter to bear the cost of improving Oregon’s fire infrastructure up front, rather than waiting to tally the cost of fire damage afterward.  

Some measures did survive the legislative session. The Oregon State University Extension Service will receive $2 million for to map out “at-risk areas” as guidance for as-yet-unapproved forest thinning. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response will each receive $250,000. The DEQ will study how to better mitigate smoke damage, and the Council’s funding is to “continue studying the issue” and working to publish a conclusion this fall.  

Rep. Kim Wallan (R-Medford), who worked with Marsh on wildfire legislation, noted that by the time any of these organizations reach any conclusions, the 2019 fire season will already be over.  

By Ian MacRonald