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Oregon Starting Fire Season With Limited Budget

April Ehrlich | JPR News
Rick O'Rourke sets a pile of debris aflame during a 2019 prescribed burn in the Ashland Watershed.

Oregon’s wildfire agency is starting the fire season with a budget that is well below what it’s expected to need. It will also need to make even deeper cuts after revenue shortfalls resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. Kate Brown’s office has asked all state departments, including the Oregon Department of Forestry, to make an 8.5 percent decrease to their budgets.

ODF has a budget of $10 million for wildfire management, but in recent years, it has needed six times that. Since 2012, Oregon has averaged about $60 million a year on firefighting costs, according to Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, a member of the Governor's Council on Wildfire Response.

The Legislature was set to consider bills this spring that would have added millions of dollars to the state’s firefighting budget, but those were tabled following a walkout by Republican lawmakers in March.

“We will have to find money to fight fires,” Marsh said in a public webinar on Tuesday. “I don't know where that will come from. I know that the governor's office and the treasury and ODF and the legislature are going to have to find a path forward because we cannot run out of money in the middle of fire season.”

Marsh says immediate firefighting efforts could be impacted by budget challenges, as will its long-term forest management goals. A November report from the wildfire council concluded that Oregon needed to invest $145 million dollars over the next two years into preparing for and managing wildfires.

“Now, this is not without controversy,” Marsh says of the report. “There are lots of people who question whether or not the work needs to be done with that. But the wildfire council was clear that forest restoration needed to be designed and implemented with the goal of creating the most resilient forest environment.”

April Ehrlich is JPR content partner at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Prior to joining OPB, she was a regional reporter at Jefferson Public Radio where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.