By Lynne Terry - Oregon Capital Chronicle
In a rare display of unity, all seven members of Oregon’s congressional delegation appealed to the U.S. Department of the Interior on Tuesday to renew a century-old agreement on managing wildfires in Oregon.
The agreement covers wildfire protection on federal land in western Oregon through financial arrangements, resource sharing, planning and joint activities. The area includes a patchwork of jurisdictions, with Bureau of Land Management forest bordering tribal, state, county and private timberland. The agreement helps to ensure that the wildfire and public safety response is coordinated across all boundaries.
“That arrangement has been a model of success and continues to this day,” according to the letter, addressed to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. It was signed by U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, and U.S. Reps. Cliff Bentz of Ontario, Peter DeFazio of Eugene, Earl Blumenauer of Portland, Suzanne Bonamici of Beaverton and Kurt Schrader of Salem. Bentz is the lone Republican in the delegation.
A wildfire protection arrangement between the U.S. government and Oregon dates to at least 1914. The current Western Oregon Operating Plan, which was signed in 2019, expires in 2024. The letter said the BLM has indicated that it wants to reduce the acreage covered. If the BLM reduced the scope of the agreement or the acres covered, it would lead to a disjointed wildfire response, according to Merkley’s office. That, in turn, could put more structures and lives at risk.
“This is of great concern to us because of the ongoing risk of catastrophic fires in our state,” the letter stated. “In fact, many of the areas included in the agreement were recently designated high-risk ‘firesheds’ by this administration.”
Native American tribes are concerned about a change proposed without consulting others, the letter said.
“The current fire protection arrangement has been a vital element of protecting Oregonians for over a century and we encourage you to renew the Department and BLM’s commitment to this effective, interagency approach,” the letter said.
With climate change and a continuing drought, wildfire seasons have started earlier in the West and lasted longer in recent years.
In 2020 in Oregon, the Almeda fire scorched 1.2-million acres and destroyed more than 5,000 homes and other buildings, with half in Jackson County. It was one of Oregon’s most devastating fires.
This season, fires have burned thousands of acres in Arizona and destroyed hundreds of structures in New Mexico, where thousands have been forced to evacuate. In Nebraska, one person died and three firefighters have been injured, according to news reports.
The National Interagency Fire Center’s latest report on April 1 said portions of central Oregon have a high potential for fire through June and that the risk will spread into central Washington and southwest Oregon in July.
Besides the threat, crews also face a shortage of firefighters. Politico reported that Forest Service applications for firefighting positions were down 50% in California and that the agency was also struggling to find crews across the West.
This story originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle and is republished here under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. Read more stories at oregoncapitalchronicle.com.