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State's budget meter running on wildfire costs

COURTESY OF RANDY GREEN - Firefighters set back fires last week in the County Line 2 fire in Central Oregon. The state still has some funding to fight wildfires, with insurance to back it up.SALEM — Oregon has yet to burn through its firefighting budget, despite ongoing catastrophic wildfires around the state.

In what now appears to have been a prudent decision, lawmakers and a committee of forest landowners agreed earlier this year to more than double the amount of money budgeted for the Oregon Department of Forestry to fight fires to a total of $50 million annually.

“I’m pleased we did it,” said Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, a member of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee. “We had been warned that fires this summer, with the kind of moisture that was predicted, could be pretty high.”

The size of the Canyon Creek fire in Grant County and the Grizzly fire in northeastern Oregon “are well over 120,000 acres and growing,” he said. “And I think we’ve probably got another several weeks or so at least until we get some good rain.”

As of Thursday afternoon, the Canyon Creek Complex near John Day had burned nearly 85,000 acres and the Grizzly Bear Complex had burned more than 68,000 acres in the Umatilla National Forest and private land in Oregon and Washington state. An additional 17 large wildfires continued to burn in other areas of the state Thursday, according to an interagency fire tracking website.

'Just have to do it'

Oregon relies on a unique system to pay wildfire fighting costs. Property owners with land classified as forest pay a state assessment to help cover firefighting costs in addition to money the Legislature appropriates from the general fund. The state has also purchased an insurance policy most years since 1973 to help cover firefighting costs.

After two severe fire seasons, however, the state’s insurance deductible more than doubled from $20 million to $50 million. When lawmakers and forest landowners decided to purchase the policy earlier this year, they had to prepare to spend up to $50 million before they could tap into the $25 million insurance policy.

Rod Nichols, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said this week that the agency estimated its net spending this year at $26 million, when expected reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other sources are factored in. Oregon spent an estimated total of $63 million to fight the wildfires, and fire officials so far expect to receive approximately $15 million in reimbursement from FEMA and $22 million from other federal sources.

“The main thing everyone is focused on now is getting the fires out,” Nichols said. “We cannot not respond to fires, so we just have to do it. That said, we’re spending a lot of money obviously from those figures.”

The state has to pay contractors in a timely manner, for example, to ensure they remain in business and can continue to work on the fires, Nichols said.

At the start of fire season, the Oregon Department of Forestry had 500 seasonal firefighters, 220 fire engines, 15 bulldozers and 14 aircraft. The state also had access to 188 private contract hand crews, inmate hand crews from state prisons, three incident management teams and National Guard helicopters.

Oregon has since pulled in resources including additional fire crews, aircraft and fire managers from other states and Canadian provinces to fight the wildfires.

“Basically, the cupboard is bare, though some of the large fires are winding down and resources are starting to return from them,” Nichols wrote in an email.

Hillary Borrud is a reporter with the Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group Capital Bureau in Salem.