Nearly one million acres of forest and range have burned so far this summer in Oregon and Washington, and the risk of wildfires will remain high through September.
That's the message delivered Saturday by the region’s top fire managers when they met with U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Wyden was in Portland to receive a briefing on the fire season from the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. He used the occasion to discuss the ballooning cost of fighting wildfires.
According to the Montana research group Headwaters Economics, fighting wildfires costs the federal government more than $3 billion a year, on average. Those costs consume half the U.S. Forest Service's annual budget and more than 10 percent of the budget for the Department of Interior.
Wyden is promoting a bill that would dedicate natural disaster funds to pay for the most expensive fires. He said he will also push for Senate passage of President Obama’s request for $615 million in additional wildfire suppression funding this year.
“We can’t afford to wait on this,” Wyden said.
Congress leaves for recess July 31 and the wildfire dollars are part of the president’s controversial $3.7 billion emergency funding request to deal with child migrants from Central America.
Wyden told state officials he’s also looking for creative ideas to bring down the cost of firefighting. One big cost driver is the need to defend homes and developments built near forests in what's called the "urban-wildland interface."
Oregon State Forester Doug Decker suggested that insurance companies could create incentives for people to take steps that reduce risk, like replacing a cedar shingle roof with a metal one.
“With the profusion of homes in the woods in the Northwest, how do we we link the level of insurance and the premium costs with the risk that’s presented by the development?” he asked.
Wyden said he would try to convene a group of insurance companies and wildland firefighting agencies to discuss the idea. In California, a law requires homeowners to thin trees and clear brush for 100 feet around their homes.
Nineteen large wildfires are burning in Oregon and Washington and forecasters predict another large lightning storm will hit Southern Oregon on Sunday. Wyden said the forecast reminded him of the conditions that ignited the Biscuit Fire in July 2002, the most costly fire in Oregon’s history.