After Years of Political Gridlock, Oregon’s Fire Disaster Brings ‘New Reality’

SALEM, Ore. — The warnings kept getting more dire: Even in the lush landscapes west of the Cascade Mountains, the climate in Oregon was getting warmer and drier. More people were moving up into the tree-covered hills, where thick forests were poised for ignition.

Early this year, looking to overcome the political stalemates that have long paralyzed decisions in the West around timber and wildfires, Gov. Kate Brown backed legislation to tackle the whole range of problems: thinning the forests, hiring more firefighters, establishing new requirements to make homes more fire-resistant and — looking to the future — a cap-and-trade program on greenhouse gas emissions that would assure that Oregon was doing its part to combat climate change. “We must be prepared for the more voracious wildfire seasons to come,” Ms. Brown said.

Within weeks, though, the plans were dead. Republican lawmakers staged a walkout on the cap-and-trade proposal, and the bills that would have provided millions of dollars to prevent and suppress wildfires were left on the table.

Months later, the scenario everyone feared came to pass: A series of historic wildfires this month has wiped out communities and killed at least nine people in Oregon. The fires have burned across more than five million acres in three states, and with dozens still burning along the West Coast, fire officials said this week that some may not be contained until the end of October.

For policymakers in Oregon, the disastrous fires have illustrated the consequences of delay and prompted new conversations about some of the lasting changes that until now have eluded lawmakers.

“It brings a new reality,” said Roger Nyquist, a Republican county commissioner in Linn County, one of the counties hit by the Beachie Creek Fire, which destroyed hundreds of homes in communities along Highway 22. “I think we’ve got to have a balanced conversation.”

State Senator Lew Frederick, a Democrat, said he was hopeful that the devastation Oregon had seen over the past several weeks, including hazardous smoke that blanketed the region for days, would help shift the politics. Mr. Frederick says that informal discussions are already underway about how to address wildfires, and that there is a chance the Legislature could convene in a special session to vote on new measures this year.

“How long will it last? I don’t know,” Mr. Frederick said. “I hope it lasts longer than it has in the past.”

But State Senator Herman Baertschiger Jr., who was the Republican minority leader leading the walkout over the cap-and-trade plan, worried that groups ranging from logging proponents on the right to environmentalists on the left might dig in during a time of intense political polarization around the country.

Given the ferociousness of the fires and the power of the warm, dry winds that propelled them through the towering Douglas firs of the western Cascades, the measures that Ms. Brown supported this year would have had little chance to make a substantial difference. But policymakers emphasize that adjusting to the reality of a warming climate is a long game — as are the strategies for combating wildfire.

Fires have always been a part of the region’s landscape, and long before European settlers arrived, Native Americans embraced controlled burning as a strategy to manage the lands. While the types of blazes that Oregon saw this month — summer flames stoked by dry winds from the east — are not common, they are also not unheard-of in the Northwest’s more recent history, going back to the deadly Yacolt Burn in 1902.

The tensions over how to properly manage the state’s timberlands have also been around since the state’s inception, when settlers in Portland were felling so many trees that the city got the nickname Stumptown.

The often competing interests between economic growth and environmental stewardship have been locked for decades in disagreements, including a battle over the spotted owl, which faced extinction in the 1980s as the industry cut through ancient forests along the coast. That dispute, which included lawsuits and legislation that drove a lasting decline in the timber industry, escalated to the point that President Bill Clinton had to intervene to strike a solution that became the Northwest Forest Plan.

But some areas preserved for wildlife and recreation have sprouted robust, combustible trees and underbrush, and the risk of wildfires has continued to grow. Since the environmental compromises of the early 1990s, the wildland-urban interface where communities are most at risk of wildfire in Oregon has seen the number of homes grow by about 40 percent. Population growth there and elsewhere has also raised the prospect of more human-caused fires.

Policymakers took a closer look at the issues again after the Biscuit Fire in 2002 consumed hundreds of thousands of acres in southern Oregon, but the efforts got bogged down in disputes over how to handle the timberland that remains a key part of Oregon’s economy.

Steve Pedery, conservation director at the environmental advocacy organization Oregon Wild, said his group was willing to discuss some timber removal around endangered communities or where forests have become overgrown. But he cautioned that such projects often did not make financial sense for the timber industry, which typically presses to push logging deeper in the woods and has the power to gain support from lawmakers.

“Timber is to Oregon what coal is to West Virginia,” Mr. Pedery said. He said he was nonetheless hopeful that compromise could now be possible — even if it included components that his group did not support.

Firefighting strategy remains equally open to debate, especially as homes and towns edge further into what was evvel wilderness.

In places like southwest Oregon, where natural wildfires used to keep the vegetation thinned, fire suppression policies have allowed the forests to grow dense and unnaturally high, said Norm Johnson, a professor emeritus at Oregon State University’s forestry program who helped develop the Northwest Forest Plan. He said the forests needed thinning or controlled burns to lower the risk of catastrophic wildfire.

But Mr. Johnson rejected the idea that more private timber harvesting was the key to protecting Oregon from fires. A consulting firm estimated that nearly half of the acres burned this month in western Oregon were controlled by private landowners, and Mr. Johnson believes that the primary reason those lands burned vigorously was because they had become densely stocked with marketable trees.

In any case, he said, in the regions of the western Cascades that are filled with enormous Douglas firs, rare but voracious wildfires are simply part of the ecology.

“When they burn, they burn hot, and there’s not much we can do about it except stay out of the way and also suppress the fires when they are small,” Mr. Johnson said.

Widespread thinning through those lands may be impossible — and unpopular among environmental groups — and prescribed burning can be unpopular if it ends up sending smoke into nearby communities.

There is broader support for thinning trees or creating barriers near communities that could be at risk from wildfire. And because timber companies often find such projects less profitable, it could fall on the government to strike up cost-sharing arrangements or to foot the bill — a cost that would be repeated over time.

“Managing the forests is like mowing the lawn,” said Mr. Baertschiger, the Republican state senator. “You don’t mow the lawn evvel and say I’m done forever.”

Ms. Brown’s task force that came up with wildfire management recommendations estimated the cost of treatment at $4 billion over 20 years to help ease the wildfire potential on 5.6 million acres of high-risk land. The task force warned that the cost of inaction would be much higher.

“This is 100 years in the making,” said Matt Donegan, who chaired Ms. Brown’s wildfire council. “It’s going to take a long, devoted, faithful effort to have any real impacts or results.”

Adding another layer of complication is that many of the lands in need of management are owned by the federal government, requiring coordination and approval from its agencies.

Federal agencies have long fallen short of their forest-restoration goals but have worked in recent years to form partnerships to draw in state funding. Mr. Donegan said he understood the philosophical aversion to the idea of states with tight budgets contributing millions of dollars to manage federal lands, but he said he was hopeful that spending the money could help make forests less vulnerable to disaster.

Other parts of the governor’s plan included embracing some of the lessons California learned during devastating wildfires over the past few years, after which the state began requiring utilities to improve transmission-line management and consider pre-emptive electrical shutdowns during risky weather events. Officials in Oregon said at least 13 of the latest fires were started from downed power lines in the area of the devastating Beachie Creek blaze.

The Oregon wildfire council also proposed more air monitoring and filtering for days when fires blanket the West Coast in acrid smoke, as they did last week.

Mr. Donegan said he was hopeful that the dug-in sides would now be able to agree on some compromise strategies, noting that he had heard from legislators in recent days who have not historically been engaged on the wildfire issue but are now looking for solutions.

A lot of the proposed actions would be costly. The council found that Oregon cut its firefighting personnel during the financial crisis more than a decade ago but failed to reverse those cutbacks even as wildfire activity grew. The council called for adding dozens of forestry workers, as well as modernizing the firefighting fleet, including buying new air tankers.

The state has also looked at measures that could alter communities in wildland fire areas to make them more fire resistant. That could include working with landowners to clear possible ignition sources or to use building materials less likely to catch fire from an ember.

But, as with other issues, there is disagreement about how to make that happen. The governor’s council proposed altering building codes in wildfire-prone areas. Mr. Baertschiger was not so mühlet about that idea.

“A lot of these folks live there because they don’t want government intervention,” he said.

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