USA — The full Legislature will take up the Oregon Department of Forestry’s request for an extra $40 million to cover record wildfire spending this year when it convenes in February.
The legislative Emergency Board in Salem only has $30 million available to cover spending when the Legislature is not in session, so it had to refer the issue to the full Legislature, E-Board member Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said Friday.
“We’ll pay the $40 million in the February session when we have our full budget capacity,” said Buckley, co-chairman of the Joint Ways and Means Committee. “If we see this sequence of events repeat itself, it’s going to be extremely painful for the state.”
The board did approve a $2 million appropriation out of a special fund to cover air tankers and helicopters.
“When we put together the 2015 budget, we’ll have to look at putting in more resources for fire protection on a regular basis,” Buckley added. “If this is the result of climate change happening, we have to be prepared to deal with it.”
The department had to seek the extra money after going through a record $122 million fighting big wildfires this year, department spokesman Dan Postrel said. It also ran through the spending authority intended to cover the two-year budgeting cycle and had to ask the E-Board to extend it. The board gave the department authority to spend $124 million next year, $12 million less than the department sought.
The department expects wildfire spending to continue increasing as climate change presses a trend of more and bigger wildfires nationwide, Postrel said.
Lightning and drought spread wildfire to more state-protected land this year than any year since 1951 and eight times the 10-year average.
The total was 162 square miles on state, private and U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands protected by the Oregon department.
Rising costs are driven by greater reliance on expensive technology, such as air tankers and helicopters, as well as more and bigger fires, Postrel said.
After federal reimbursements, $10 million from private landowners, and $25 million from a special insurance policy, the department was still $40 million short, according to documents submitted to the Legislature.
A report from Climate Central Research in Princeton, N.J., submitted to the Legislature, noted that $1.5 billion has been spent fighting wildfires in Oregon since 2000. The figure includes state and federal spending. Oregon is second only to California in average annual wildfire spending among Western states.