Gov. Kate Brown will be issuing an executive order for a wildfire study that might set the stage for more money to reduce devastating blazes that walloped the Southern Oregon economy and endangered public health for two years in a row.
Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, said she’s heartened to see Brown address the wildfire issue, though the governor’s proposed $83.5 billion budget doesn’t appear to have specific earmarks for projects to curtail wildfire threats.
The governor’s Wednesday budget proposal, which likely will change markedly when the Legislature begins its biennial session in January, is lacking projects that specifically benefit Southern Oregon as well.
But Marsh wants to keep the wildfire danger front and center this legislative session.
“Who of us didn’t look at that Paradise story and say, ‘That could be us,’” Marsh said. She’s referring to the Camp fire that on Nov. 8 burned most of Paradise, California, a city about the size of Ashland.
Marsh said she’s putting together a wildfire forum Jan. 17, 2019, with federal and state forestry officials.
Armed with data from the forum, Marsh hopes to create legislation that will throw more resources into this region.
Brown is expected to issue the executive order before the end of the year, and the study is expected to focus on forest management, economic issues and firefighting management strategies.
“Are our current methods of fighting fires sustainable in light of the new normal?” Marsh asked. Another goal is how to lessen the public health problems associated with prolonged exposure to smoke.
“We will be looking at both short- and long-term ways to deal with the problem,” she said.
As part of the executive order, state economists will also study solutions to help an area recover economically from a summer of smoke, which hit both the Britt and Oregon Shakespeare festivals hard this year.
Marsh said that the executive order is being discussed at a high level, so there aren’t a lot of concrete steps that have been proposed. She expects it should be fleshed out more over the next month.
Marsh said local grants, which have typically been awarded in state budgets, will come to light over the next few months.
She said there are many things being proposed in the governor’s budget that would help Southern Oregon, including for education and health care.
More money could be available for employer-sponsored day care for low-income families, she said.
A bigger investment in early childhood education is a priority, and universal system to check in on every family with a new child is also being proposed.
Marsh said she has been fighting for universal broadband in rural parts of the state, and she said the governor’s budget proposed creating a broadband office to provide technical assistance.
“We can reasonably aim to have all Oregonians online,” she said. “It would be one of the best economic tools across the state.”
Rep.-elect Kim Wallan, R-Medford, said the additional spending on education hides the fact that the state faces a huge problem with the Public Employment Retirement System.
“Our schools are not really underfunded,” Wallan said. “PERS is underfunded. PERS is the culprit.”
Wallan said she thinks the state has two options, either fight the PERS problem or raise taxes to pay for it. She said she would prefer to fight but thinks the state will instead look at higher taxes.
Wallan said she doesn’t think more studying is necessary to come up with solutions for the wildfire problem.
She said the problem is that the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t have the same firefighting philosophy as the Oregon Department of Forestry, which she believes does a better job at putting out fires quickly.
She cited the Forest Service’s decision to light a controlled burn that connected the Taylor Creek and Klondike fires into one large conflagration.
“The U.S. Forest Service needs to stop starting fires,” she said. “That fire would not have lasted as long if they didn’t keep dropping stupid fire balls on it,” she said. Wallan refers to the ping-pong balls filled with a flammable substance dropped to burn out specific areas.
Wallan said she’d prefer the Oregon Department of Forestry take charge of fire management throughout the state, while relying on the U.S. Forest Service for equipment, manpower and financial resources.
“I don’t think a study is going to yield anything we can use,” Wallan said.