ENVIRONMENT

Oregon Investing $220 Million To Handle Growing Wildfire Problem

Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill as the massive Bootleg fire raged in southern Oregon.

As the country’s largest wildfire so far this year burns across Oregon, the state’s Gov. Kate Brown (D) signed a bill Friday that invests another $220 million in the wildfire prevention, preparedness and response needed for “fires of this new age,” she said. 

As Brown signed the bill, the Bootleg fire in southern Oregon had burned more than 413,000 acres and threatened to grow even bigger in the coming days. It’s just one of many large blazes to have spread across the drought-stricken state this year.

“This year alone, we’ve already had nine major fires burned across Oregon ― twice as many as we had this time last year,” Brown said Friday. “Those on the front line will tell you that the Bootleg fire has behaved like no fire they have ever seen before, doubling in size each of the first several days and creating its own weather pattern.”

The $220 million investment builds on an effort Brown started in 2019 when she launched the Wildfire Council to investigate the challenges and solutions to the state’s growing wildfire problem. But the 2019 legislative session ended before lawmakers could pass any of the council’s recommendations for improving wildfire response, fire adaptability in communities and resiliency in Oregon’s landscapes. The bill investing in and implementing those strategies was reintroduced at the start of 2021, and Brown signed it into law Friday.

Fire Information Officer Jacob Welsh observes smoldering trees on the northern front of the Bootleg Fire on July 23 near Silv
Fire Information Officer Jacob Welsh observes smoldering trees on the northern front of the Bootleg Fire on July 23 near Silver Creek, Oregon.

Oregon needs to modernize its approach to wildfires, which have grown bigger and more frequent across the western U.S. as climate change exacerbates heat and drought in the region.

“As we responded to these fires over the past couple of years ... it was really clear that we were battling with tools used in the last century,” Brown reflected Friday. “We were simply not equipped to fight the fires of this new age, which are faster and more fierce and fueled by the impacts of climate change.”

Brown was one of several governors to meet virtually with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday to discuss ways the federal government can better assist with wildfire response.

“We can’t ignore how the overlapping and intertwined factors ― extreme heat, prolonged drought and supercharged wildfire conditions ― are affecting the country,” Biden said. “And so this is a challenge that demands our urgent, urgent action.”

It’s a sharp pivot from former President Donald Trump, who frequently dismissed the role climate change played in wildfires and told Californians they merely needed to “rake” their forest floors better, even though many of the state’s biggest fires have happened on federally managed land. Last year, he turned down California’s request for wildfire disaster assistance. A former official in his administration also revealed that Trump didn’t want to give California any wildfire aid because it was a blue state.

Other governors present were Gavin Newsom (D) of California, Brad Little( R) of Idaho, Tim Walz (D) of Minnesota, Greg Gianforte (R) of Montana, Jay Inslee (D) of Washington and Mark Gordon (R) of Wyoming.