USA — The only sure things about wildfires is that they will cost more to put out than they used to and that they remain as unpredictable as ever.
Hotter, drier summers, rising labor and equipment costs, buildup of forest fuels and urban sprawl all run up the costs, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.
So forest landowners will see some higher assessments, taxes and fees to meet higher costs on upcoming property tax bills.
Last session the Legislature address the broader fire funding problem by passing House Bill 3044A. Effective this year, the measure boosts revenue for 12 months to the Oregon Forest Land Protection Fund by 25 percent through increases in fire protection assessment paid by forest landowners, tax on timber harvest and surcharge on improved lots within fire protection districts.
The strain on the protection fund from more expensive, and more frequent, large fires surfaced this June when fund managers had to borrow from the state to offset a $5 million deficit in 2007.
The landowner-financed fund pays the extra costs of fighting large wildfires, such as air tankers, helicopters and hand crews. The loan must be repaid within a year.
The new law is a first step in the restructuring of Oregon’s fire protection funding system, say forestry department officials.
Over the past three fire seasons, the Oregon Department of Forestry battled 14 large wildfires that ran to more than $1 million each. During that period, it cost an average of $11.8 million per season to fight forest fires.
In recent years funding sources have brought in slightly more than $8 million annually, and the balance has been in decline for a decade.
The Oregon Department of Forestry would like the 2009 Legislature to consider strengthening firefighting capacity and reducing large, costly wildfires.
The act would:
_Place more firefighters, fire engines and helicopters in the most fire-prone districts so that fewer small fires become large. Currently, these four districts account for more than 80 percent of large-fire expenditures.
_Shift responsibility for the additional costs incurred during fire season, currently maintained within the Legislature’s Emergency Fund to forest landowners.
_Restructure large fire cost payments so that the state general fund shares them more equitably with forest landowners in maintaining the wildfire protection system.