Oregon senators seek wildfire funds

Wyden, Merkley also say biggest wildfires are natural disasters

By Andrew Clevenger / The Bulletin / @andclev

Lightning prompts new reports of fires

Fire crews Tuesday night were responding to several dozen new reports of possible wildfires as thunderstorms rolled through Central Oregon.

The storms produced lightning strikes around the region Tuesday afternoon and into the evening. About 400 lightning strikes had hit Central Oregon, part of about 3,000 statewide, by 6 p.m. Tuesday, said Mike Vescio, with the National Weather Service in Pendleton.

Early fire reports were mainly in the same area of the Ochoco National Forest and Prineville BLM that were hit hard after storms just over a week ago, according to the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center. Many of the new starts were close to where the Ochoco Complex and Center fires are already burning. By 5 p.m. crews were dispatched across the region, and by 9 p.m. the center was responding to 40-plus fires, with many of them already contained.

The weather service was predicting a possibility of more thunderstorms today, and there’s a slight chance of thunderstorms tonight.

Thunderstorms just over a week ago produced a bevy of wildfires around Central and Eastern Oregon, which have kept firefighters busy since — from Camp Sherman to Mitchell to Warm Springs.

— Bulletin staff report

WASHINGTON — As wildfires continue to burn across Oregon, Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden wrote to Senate leaders Tuesday, urging them to give a vote to the Obama administration’s supplementary budget request, which includes $615 million in emergency wildfire suppression funds.

The Oregon Democrats were joined by 10 other Democrats, mostly from Western states, in signing letters to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and ranking member Richard Shelby, R-Ala., also received copies of the letter.

“There are large active fires in many western states, and new fires starting daily. Both Oregon and Washington have declared states of emergency, acknowledging that the scope, breadth, and severity of the wildfires have overwhelmed local capabilities and pose a threat to life, safety, and property,” the letter states.

The letter also called for a floor vote on legislation authored by Wyden and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, that would treat the largest 1 percent of wildfires, which consume 30 percent of the federal firefighting budget, as natural disasters like tornadoes or hurricanes. Response to these catastrophic fires would be funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Merkley has co-sponsored this legislation, and a similar bill, sponsored by Reps. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., and Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, is pending in the House.

The legislation is designed to end “fire-borrowing,” in which land management agencies “borrow” funds from other projects, including cutting back the small trees and brush that burn easily in forest fires, to pay the costs of fighting wildfires. While Congress often backfills these accounts later, the hazardous-fuel reduction and other projects can be delayed or canceled, leading to bigger fire costs in the future.

“This is no way to responsibly fund wildfire management in this country,” the letter states. “We cannot afford to wait another year to fix this urgent problem.”

The other senators who signed the letter were Tom Udall , D-N.M., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Mark Udall, D-Colo., Jon Tester, D-Mont., John Walsh, D-Mont., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo.

Wyden and Merkley sent a separate letter Tuesday to U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and Neil Kornze, director of the Bureau of Land Management, asking them to try to make sure Oregon consistently has adequate resources throughout this year’s challenging fire season.

With more than 16 active wildfires, which encompass more than 585,000 acres in Oregon, Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a state of emergency this month, the letter noted.

“While we understand the need to balance resources not only in areas where there are active fires, but also in areas where fires may occur, Oregon remains at severe risk nationally. Protracted drought and record low fuel moisture indices exist across much of the state. This presents significant risks to rural communities, forest resources, public health, and wildlife habitat,” the senators wrote.

— Reporter: 202-662-7456, aclevenger@bendbulletin.com