Wildfire Prevention a Seeming Non-Issue to Most Gubernatorial Candidates

Despite the ever-increasing risk of wildfires in Oregon as climate change continues unhindered, it would appear that state gubernatorial candidates simply… don’t care. 

According to a report by OPB, a majority of governor candidates don’t even list wildfires as a concern, let alone a top priority – and that includes locals to areas that were devastated by wildfires such as last year’s Bootleg Fire like GOP candidate Christine Drazan, a Klamath County resident. 

OPB distributed a questionnaire among gubernatorial candidates asking where they stand on various issues. And the responses? Only one candidate, Curry County Commissioner Court Boice, made a response related to wildfires, writing “CATASTROPHIC FIRE DANGER – RISKS.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t consider himself a serious contender. 

While Democratic candidates Tina Kotek and Tobias Reed list wildfires as one of many overall concerns, their approach to fixing these is quite roundabout. Investments in renewable energy, while helpful overall, are not a solution to wildfires nor their growing threat in Oregon. 

And this is a problem that’s becoming increasingly present in the public eye – out of 600 people who participated in an OPB survey, 61% list forest fires as a “very serious” issue. 

The reality of the situation is that, while urban areas may not need to worry too heavily about wildfires, those in Oregon’s more rural counties absolutely do. Rep. Pam Marsh, a Democrat in Ashland, has made it abundantly clear that wildfires are seriously damaging to both property and the Oregonian economy. 

Marsh told OPB, “If you haven’t been immersed in that world, likely you’re still thinking about this as a single-dimensional problem and not understanding all the parts that have to be addressed in order to keep communities as protected as possible.” 

She, in addition to other wildfire experts, have landed on the idea that evidence-based forestry management is the best way to control future fires. Whether that means thinning forests, spreading diversity in ecosystems, or even strategically using fire as a tool – change is needed to curb the spread of wildfires. 

“Where a whole lot of the solid science comes down to is, making sure that forests that are overgrown have some thinning and that we really take care of the undergrowth using prescriptive burning,” Marsh said. “It’s pretty clear that one or the other isn’t good enough.” 

With $220 million dedicated to helping control wildfires through Senate Bill 762, the hope is through time and effort, tangible change can be made. However, that requires a governor who cares about properly using that budget; something that requires a great deal of work that, ultimately, no candidate has expressed an interest in pursuing. 

That’s not to say that no candidate is versed in wildfire legislation, though. Reps Kotek and Read have experience in the field, with Read co-chairing the governor’s Wildfire Economic Recovery Council after the 2020 Labor Day fire. Kotek, on the other hand, was the House speaker when SB 762 was passed, voting in favor of it. 

Ultimately, though, whoever ends up in the gubernatorial hot seat will be working in tandem with Doug Grafe, the “wildfire czar” of the state and mastermind behind SB 762. Grafe is hopeful that the law will bring Oregon around to meet vital goals, though it’s not the end of the trail.  

“This is a one-time investment for the biennium, and the Legislature will deliberate on where we go from here,” said Grafe. 

The chief of fire protection for the Oregon Dept. of Forestry, Mike Shaw, credits Governor Brown with a majority of the wildfire-fighting movement’s momentum.  

“Our current governor has been extremely a really strong advocate for the needs of wildfire protection agencies across the state, and has really put in a lot of energy to help further the evolution of wildfire protection in Oregon,” Shaw said. “I’m hopeful that whoever the next governor is that they take it as serious as this governor has, because she has done a really good job of keeping it elevated.” 

By Ethan Hauck 

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