How not to reduce fire danger


The master of disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is not so good at preventing disaster.

It did a sketchy job reducing wildfire danger in Central Oregon.

Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management, or OEM, messed up, too.

The result is Deschutes County is stuck paying back $43,472.92, because it unknowingly used money to reduce wildfire in an area that was not approved by FEMA. The OEM is also paying back another $50,000 itself.

What’s worse is what happened to a $3 million grant to protect Central Oregon from wildfire. FEMA announced in September 2010 that Deschutes, Crook and Klamath counties were going to get $3 million to protect homes. Not a dime of that money has been spent. FEMA froze it.

This all started with grants FEMA gave Deschutes and Crook counties in 2007 and 2008. It was to do thinning work to reduce the fire danger to homes. The grants were about $1 million a piece.

Deschutes County spent its share for those grants. It filed reports to the OEM as required about its spending. The OEM approved the reports. Deschutes County assumed all was well.

But then in 2011, FEMA asked for $328,000 back from Deschutes County from the 2007 and the 2008 grants. It claimed Deschutes County used the 2007 and 2008 grants for work in areas that were not authorized by FEMA. And FEMA froze the $3 million grant from 2010.

Rather than pay up, Deschutes County fought back. At one point the money FEMA wanted back ballooned to $700,000, retired Deschutes County Forester Joe Stutler said.

Obviously, if Deschutes County spent money for wildfire reduction on acreage not covered by the grant, FEMA was entitled to ask for it back.

But the OEM was responsible for disbursing the grant money, and it failed to ensure the money was being spent in the proper areas. The county had every reason to believe it was following the prescriptions of the grant. It heard nothing from OEM.

FEMA also made a poor choice.

It would also seem to be better and quite useful for a federal agency that is providing money to a county to reduce the risk of wildfire to actually use the money to reduce the risk of wildfire. FEMA decided, instead, that $3 million would be better doing nothing.

OEM, at least, has apparently learned from its mistake and plans to pay Oregon Department of Forestry officials to inspect where thinning work is done.

Six months from now, long after another fire season has gone, some of FEMA’s $3 million grant may actually be spent on reducing fire danger.