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Fire funding system needs adjustment, Forestry Department advises
For immediate release
Major media distribution
Aug. 18, 2008
Contact: Rod Nichols, 503-945-7425
By definition, wildfire is unpredictable. But there’s one sure thing: When a fire burns in the forest these days, it will cost more to put out than 20, 10 or even five years ago. Hotter, drier summers, rising labor and equipment costs, build-up of forest fuels and urban sprawl all factor into the increase.
The strain on the Oregon Forest Land Protection Fund (OFLPF) of more expensive, and more frequent, large fires surfaced this June when the fund managers had to borrow money from the State Treasury to offset a $5 million deficit incurred in 2007. The landowner-financed OFLPF pays the extra costs of fighting large wildfires such as air tankers, helicopters and hand crews.
By law, the loan must be repaid within a year. To cover it, the wildfire protection assessment on forest landowners and the surcharge on owners of improved lots in forest protection districts are being raised for a 12-month period.
The Oregon Legislature took steps in the last session to address the broader fire funding problem by passing House Bill 3044A. Effective this year, the measure boosts revenue to the OFLPF by 25 percent through increases in the:
  • fire protection assessment paid by forest landowners
  • tax on timber harvest
  • surcharge on improved lots within fire protection districts
While the new law will help, it is just the first step in a much-needed restructuring of Oregon’s fire protection funding system.
Over the past three fire seasons, the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) battled 14 large wildfires that ran to more than a million dollars each to put out. During that period, it cost an average of $11.8 million per season to fight these forest fires on lands protected by ODF. For the past several years, funding sources for the OFLPF have brought in slightly more than $8 million annually. With increasingly costly fire seasons, the balance of the fund has been in steady decline for a decade.
Clearly, more must be done to assure the quality of wildfire protection that Oregonians have become accustomed to so that it can continue on the 15.8 million acres of private and public forestlands that ODF safeguards.
Enter the Wildfire Reduction Act. This proposed piece of legislation by ODF prepared for consideration in the 2009 legislative session calls for strengthening firefighting capacity to reduce the incidence of large, costly and environmentally damaging wildfires. The Act would:
  • Place more firefighters, fire engines and helicopters in the most fire-prone districts so that fewer small fires escape to become large, costly incidents. Currently, these four districts account for more than 80 percent of the expenditures to put out large fires.
  • Shift responsibility for the additional costs incurred during periods of fire severity (currently maintained within the Legislature’s emergency fund) to forest landowners.
  • Restructure the system for paying large fire costs so that the state general fund shares more equitably with forest landowners in maintaining the wildfire protection system that benefits all Oregonians.  
The hope of state wildfire managers is that the Act will help stabilize wildfire funding and decrease the need to borrow money in future years to pay for forest firefighting.