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Lawmakers draw $14 million for forest firefighting costs

2014 season worse than 10-year average; lawmakers see more severe seasons ahead.

Oregon lawmakers returned almost $30 million unspent to the tax-supported general fund, but not without paying out $14 million more for the costs of fighting forest fires this year.

In its final meeting Wednesday, the Legislative Emergency Board drew the $14 million from the state's emergency fund for a forest-firefighting season that resulted in $76 million in costs.

Most of those costs were paid from federal funds, the state’s tax-supported general fund and landowner contributions, and an insurance policy taken out by the state.

Still, the 1,094 fires and 51,394 acres they consumed as of early October exceeded Oregon 10-year averages of 968 fires and 22,855 acres.

The figures refer to fires occurring on state-protected lands, which include state forests, private lands, and public lands overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management, most of those in western Oregon. They exclude national forests overseen by the U.S. Forest Service.

Sen. Fred Girod, R-Lyons, says if current trends hold, “I think it’s only going to get worse before it gets better. I feel strongly that we are going to have trouble down the road.”

Girod says the state’s forest-firefighting insurance premium from Lloyd’s, the London insurance company, doubled from 2013 to 2014.

Next season, he says, “either we cannot get insurance, or it’s going to be so expensive that it’s not worth it.”

He also says that although the state’s general fund and forest landowners share a $20 million deductible before insurance kicks in, landowners cannot bear steeply rising costs.

Girod says Oregon needs to allow logging to resume on some forests, although the U.S. Congress has deadlocked on resolving what should happen with federal forests in western Oregon.

Agreeing with him was Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, who says a warmer and drier climate in the West also will contribute to increased danger of wildfires, particularly in Southern and Eastern Oregon.

In a discussion he had with a top California official last summer while observing how firefighters from the two states fought a forest fire on the California-Oregon border, Bates says California no longer sees an end to a fire season.

“We are just sneaking through year after year,” Bates says. “One of these years, we are going to light up Southern Oregon and have a fire season you will not believe.”

The E-Board, which makes budget decisions between sessions, had on hand about $28 million of the $30 million that lawmakers set aside for the state emergency fund back in mid-2013. After drawing from the fund for firefighting costs and readiness, it returned a total of $29 million to the general fund, including about $15 million left unspent in various special-purpose appropriations by lawmakers.

The current two-year budget cycle ends June 30.

The E-Board goes out of existence once lawmakers open their 2015 session on Jan. 12.


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Clarifies that the $14 million comes from the state's emergency fund; the remaining $14 million reverted to the general fund. JW_DISQUS_ADD_A_COMMENT