Editorial: Fire policy pays off

Published Sep 3, 2014 at 12:10AM

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Oregon is alone among the states with an actual insurance policy against wildfires, officials at the Oregon Department of Forestry say. The premium, about $2 million this year, may sound huge, but it wasn’t always that high. It turns out the policy has saved far more than it costs. In fact, in the 38 years the state has purchased wildfire insurance, the savings have added up to some $21.7 million.

Those savings are likely to continue. The premium on the policy doubled from last year to this, no doubt because claims last year exceeded the maximum payout on the policy. That may well be the case again this year — Oregon’s wildfires already have cost the Department of Forestry well more than the $20 million deductible before insurance payments kick in.

Meanwhile, it would be wrong to blame global warming exclusively for the increased number of wildfires in the West in the last decade. Yes, the region has been hit by drought, and yes, the average temperature is up about 1 degree since 1950, according to climate.gov. But there’s something else going on as well, and it’s something that can be controlled.

That’s overall forest health, at least where federal lands are concerned, and state firefighting efforts are not limited to state and privately owned land.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or even a forestry major to figure out that wildlands filled with bug-infested and fragile trees are at greater risk for burning. Nor does it take particular expertise to reach the conclusion that decades of fire suppression have played a role.

Forests in these parts were pretty sparsely wooded — 25 trees per acre 100 years ago compared with as many as 1,000 per acre today — largely because fire swept through periodically. Those fires assured the removal of weak trees, needles, leaves and bushes that have become common to local forests since fire suppression became the name of the game.

Restoring forest health won’t end forest fires, of course, but it can help prevent them from becoming huge and hugely expensive. Oregon itself has been doing pretty well in that regard. Unfortunately, the federal government cannot say the same thing. Until that changes, Oregon’s fire insurance policy may be spendy, but it’s worth it.