OREGONLIVE.COM — State forestry officials told lawmakers that they are operationally prepared for what could be a severe and complicated wildfire season given drought conditions and the difficulties of dealing with COVID-19 on the fire line.
What they don’t know is how they’re going to pay for it.
Jason Miner, the governor’s natural resources policy adviser, said that the financially troubled agency has the funds it needs to get it through the 2020 fire season. But that’s not actually the case.
State lawmakers have repeatedly kicked the can on finding a permanent solution to the agency’s ongoing fire funding problems. And, on Friday, State Forester Peter Daugherty told members of the Interim Committee on Wildfire Reduction and Recovery that the agency’s budget would be exhausted in August – entering the peak of fire season. The agency is looking to negotiate a new, long-term line of credit with the Oregon Treasury, but treasury officials have been reluctant lenders given the department’s past mismanagement of its fire costs, and its resulting difficulties paying off its short-term borrowings.
“I’m quite certain no one is going to tell me to stop fighting fires,” Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry said Friday. “Everything I’ve seen from the legislature gives me complete confidence. It’s the mechanism that’s uncertain.”
That confidence has not been mutual. Earlier this year, lawmakers considered a raft of wildfire legislation aiming to put more boots on the ground, modernize equipment, make huge investments in forest thinning and prescribed burns, and help communities adapt to increased wildfire.
The most ambitious legislation was based on the recommendations of a wildfire preparedness council the governor appointed last year. Various lawmakers, however, choked on the projected forest restoration costs of $4 billion over 20 years. Academics and environmental groups also scoffed at the bill, saying the state was about to double down on an ineffective and expensive strategy that created the state’s wildfire problem in the first place.
Gov. Kate Brown, however, insisted that “doing nothing is not an option.”
But nothing is exactly what happened. All wildfire legislation died when Republicans walked out over controversial climate change bill. And with the state’s revenue forecast and budget in deep trouble, there is little prospect of the state making those investments immediately. On Friday, Miner told members of the Interim Committee on Wildfire Reduction and Recovery that all that work remains relevant, but that the request would have to be downsized for the 2021 legislative session.
Meanwhile, lawmakers have ignored a supplemental budget request the agency made in late 2019 specifically for fire costs. It asked lawmakers for between $52 and $132 million – money it said was critical to get through the 2020 season. All legislators came up with was $3.6 million in so-called severity dollars to cover some aviation and ground resources.
The agency’s basic financial problem hasn’t changed. Its firefighting costs have ballooned from an average of $10 million annually to more than $70 million a year during the last seven years. And the agency doesn’t have the resources to pay contractors and vendors while awaiting reimbursement of those costs from the state, from federal agencies and from its fire insurance policy. At present, it has $84 million outstanding in unreimbursed fire costs, $28 million of which the agency has yet to invoice — some dating back to 2015.
To float those costs, the agency has historically dipped into state forest’s division’s harvest revenues and drawn on a $50 million short-term line of credit from the Oregon Treasury. But as the Oregonian/OregonLive documented in its Failing Forestry series last year, that strategy stripped the state forest division of the resources and staff to manage its own mission and pushed it to harvest state forests at unsustainable levels to raise cash.
Meanwhile, the Oregon Treasury has balked at extending credit because the agency was unable to repay its existing line of credit last year, an annual requirement. In the end, the forestry department was forced to borrow $30 million from the Department of Administrative Services to cover payroll.
Agency leaders acknowledge their own role in bungling its fire costs, and their failure to raise a loud enough alarm before the agency was on the brink of insolvency. At Friday’s hearing, Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, drilled down into the issues, asking why lawmakers were caught flat-footed.
The governor’s office brought in a third-party financial SWAT team to evaluate the problems and recommend solutions, but that company’s report to the legislature has been delayed amid the COVID-19 chaos. Meanwhile, Daugherty was put on a performance review plan by the Board of Forestry, and required to deliver monthly financial updates to the Legislature’s budget chiefs.
Now the pressure is on with a looming fire season that looks to be an expensive one.
Grafe told lawmakers Friday that the 2020 fire seasons is shaping up to be above average. Much of the state is already abnormally dry and extreme drought conditions are already present in Southwest and North Central Oregon. Forecasters, meanwhile, say those conditions will persist through summer with above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation.
“This is a concerning starting point at the doorstep of fire season,” Grafe said.
So far in 2020, the agency has responded to 16 lighting-caused fires and 162 human cause fires. That’s 71% more human fires than normal, a spike Grafe attributed to having more people at home during the pandemic. The agency has kept those fires small to date and plans to focus its efforts on rapid initial attacks this summer to avoid larger fires. It may help, Grafe said, that the U.S. Forest Service is deploying more of its larger, firefighting helicopters this season, and some may be based in Oregon.
The state may get a reprieve in June, as forecasters have done a 180-degree turn on temperature and precipitation projections for the month, Grafe said. But forecasts for July, August and September don’t look promising.
“What we don’t like to see is those red bullseyes on Oregon,” Grafe told lawmakers, referring to a slide showing almost the entire state at risk of a severe wildfire season. That risk extends across much of the West, which could cause firefighter and equipment shortages, he said.
The agency has restructured 2020 firefighting plans in light of the coronavirus pandemic and the risk that poses to firefighters, who typically work in close proximity and live for days and weeks in crowded fire camps.
Grafe said the agency still plans to hire 600 seasonal employees but had redesigned its firefighter training, public outreach and plans for aviation and grounds crews in light of the virus. Ground crews will be equipped with face masks and rubber gloves. It plans social distancing at fire camps, from mealtime to sleeping arrangements. Daily planning meetings will be held online. Aviation crews won’t stay at the camps, and command posts will be isolated from other personnel.
“It will be a challenge,” Grafe said. “It absolutely makes for a lot more complexity than we’ve ever had. But we’ve had the time to prepare and I do believe we’ve come to a good place.”
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