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Innovative Oregon proposal aims to better control wildfires, costs

April 16, 2012

   In Oregon, forest landowners have helped craft a proposal that would significantly boost the heavy-hitting supplemental resources—primarily contracted air tankers and helicopters—available to move around the state on short notice to places with the most severe fire danger.

   Through increased landowner contributions, the proposal would more than double the revenue pool (a combination of public and landowner dollars) for this “severity” strategy, which has demonstrated its value repeatedly. Preventing just one large fire annually can save millions of dollars, potentially the season’s entire severity investment—a huge benefit to landowners and the state as a whole.

   Data from 2001-2010 shows that a few large wildfires account for the major share of firefighting costs:

   · 75 percent of costs: 35 fires larger than 1,000 acres

   · 18 percent of costs: 470 fires 11 to 999 acres in size

   · 7 percent of costs: 10,230 fires stopped at 10 acres or smaller

   Besides increasing statewide availability of strong, nimble firefighting resources, the Oregon proposal would:

   · Allocate some state funds from the severity pool toward basic fire protection rates for private forests in eastern Oregon. There, high fire incidence results in some of the highest costs for protection. That factor, in conjunction with the lower forest productivity of the lands, increases the risk of landowners seeking other uses for working forests.

   · Phase in a new way for landowners and state funds to share the deductible required before Oregon’s large-fire insurance policy kicks in. Currently, landowners are liable for a substantial portion—the entire cost incurred in several recent years—before the state is obligated. The proposal would move toward the state and landowners sharing deductible costs from the first dollar spent, with the premise that the greater severity investment would mean fewer large fires over time.

The proposal emerged from a committee chartered by the state Board of Forestry to find ways to reduce the number of large fires and to maintain affordable fire protection on eastside lands. The committee, consisting of forest landowners, industry association representatives, legislative fiscal experts and others, worked for three months on its proposal, which the board approved in March 2012. The proposal will now be refined for consideration by Gov. John Kitzhaber. If it is included in the governor’s statewide budget request for 2013-2015, the 2013 Oregon Legislature will be asked to make the necessary statutory changes.

   “This is the latest refinement in a system of shared responsibility for fire protection that has evolved over the past century,” said Nancy Hirsch, Fire Protection Division Chief with the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) and co-chair of the committee. “We have an opportunity here to reduce the number of large fires, cost and damaging resource loss, while helping to keep some of our most vulnerable eastside forests green and working, producing benefits that Oregonians value.”

   ODF, Oregon’s largest fire department, provides fire protection on 16 million acres, primarily private forests, but also including non-federal public forests and, by contract, U.S. Bureau of Land Management forests in western Oregon.

Rod Nichols is with the Oregon Department of Forestry Public Affairs Program in Salem. He can be reached at rod.l.nichols@state.or.us.