Massive wildfires spark discussion on future prevention

Thoughts differ on best way to deal with wildfires in the West

People watch the Eagle Creek Fire grow in the Columbia River Gorge, September 4, 2017 (Facebook: Eagle Creek Fire)
People watch the Eagle Creek Fire grow in the Columbia River Gorge, September 4, 2017 (Facebook: Eagle Creek Fire)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The fire caught quick. Strong winds sent embers flying from the Eagle Creek trail through the Columbia River Gorge, burning — and still burning — an area more than half the size of Portland.

“What I watched was I watched trees exploding and the sky turn red,” said Jean Foster, who saw the fire from the Washington side of the Gorge, “And I saw the moon turn blood red. And I tell you what: It was overwhelming. It was like walking in to hell.”

In a matter of hours, Mary Pate and her family went from evacuation level 1 to 3. In a matter of hours, they had to leave their Cascade Locks home behind.

A time lapse of the Eagle Creek Fire. (Oca Hoeflein)

“The whole hillside just lit up,” Pate remembers. “It was just right on top of us.”

Nearly 2 weeks later, Pate and her family returned. The blackberries and the small trees that surrounded her house were all gone. But despite how close the fire got, her home was still standing.

“The only thing that separated the fire from my house is this road,” Pate said, pointing at the marker of her home’s near destruction.

Pate and her family were lucky, but others in Oregon, Washington and California can’t say the same. Wildfires in Northern California, for example, have reportedly destroyed more than 8,900 buildings and killed more than 40 people. That number is still rising. Local and national officials think something has to change.

“Every year we can’t keep saying ‘I’ve never seen conditions like that,'” said Jim Pena, the regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service. “We have to change our approach to the fire conditions that we are seeing.”

Chopper 6 took a look at some of the damage from the Eagle Creek Fire on Thursday Sept. 7, 2017 (KOIN).
Chopper 6 took a look at some of the damage from the Eagle Creek Fire on Thursday Sept. 7, 2017 (KOIN).

Pena said he wants to put more resources into fire prevention, improvements that will make communities more fire safe. Right now, that’s a difficult task. The U.S. Forest Service borrows money to fight fires as they burn. And fires today are burning more, which makes the fight against them even more expensive.

In 2010, the Pacific Northwest saw 165,012 acres burned from wildfires, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. The price tag was $81,969,090.

As of mid-October, the Pacific Northwest had 1,120,000 acres burned, costing $568,548,454 — a nearly 600% increase.

The money the U.S. Forest Service borrows is money taken away from prevention programs. But there’s a bipartisan bill that could change the way we pay for wildfires.

The Wildland Fires Act, introduced by Sen. Maria Cantwell and co-sponsored by Democratic senators Ron Wyden, Jeff Merkley and Patty Murray plus Republican senators Mike Crapo and James Risch, would give at-risk communities millions of dollars for prevention efforts. A pilot program to cut down trees in the most prone areas would also be created.

In 2013, Wyden first introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act to treat wildfires as natural disasters. That would allow the Forest Service to use disaster relief funding once the agency has spent its appropriated firefighting money for the year.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would end the practice of “fire borrowing,” where agencies take money from fire prevention funds to fight fires. That leads to a cycle that keeps the agencies from doing preventative forest health work.

“Congress should not sit back while lives and property face wildfire threats, accepting a dangerous status quo of these fires only getting larger and costing more,” Wyden said in a press release. “The way the federal government budgets for these fires is broken, it literally adds fuel to the fires, and Congress has an obligation to fix it.”

US Senator Ron Wyden in Portland, Jan. 6, 2015 (KOIN 6 News)
US Senator Ron Wyden in Portland, Jan. 6, 2015 (KOIN 6 News)

It’s not the only bill sparked by the wildfires in the west. On Sept. 9, a week after the Eagle Creek Fire started, Oregon Representative Greg Walden (R) introduced a bill called the Scenic Columbia River Gorge Restoration Act which would allow salvage logging in the areas affected by the fire.

“It’s one of those things you hope you never see in your lifetime,” Walden said in a press conference on Sept. 9 about the Eagle Creek Fire. “Once you see it, you become pretty passionate about how do we fix it, how do we restore it, how do we get back to full life.”

Salvage logging would be to clean up the Gorge of damaged wood and restore the area as fast as possible. That means up to 10,000 acres and in areas that are visible from key viewing sites, logging projects in the Gorge can exclude review from the National Environmental Police Act and the Endangered Species Act. The bill was introduced but has yet to progress any further than that.

Another bill Walden co-sponsors has made it past the House and into the Senate. The Resilient Federal Forests Act is similar to Walden’s Scenic Columbia River Gorge Restoration Act.

Another bill picking up steam is the Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation Act of 2017 which was introduced by Wyoming Senator John Barrasso. The bill “will enhance forest management to more effectively mitigate severity of catastrophic wildfires,” according to a press release.

Bark is meeting in Portland on Nov. 15 about the Gorge and wildfires

There are a lot of similar bills in discussion, but Brenna Bell, a staff attorney for Bark — a watchdog group for the Mt. Hood National Forest — thinks, when it comes to fire, we should talk about protecting communicates. Salvage logging doesn’t really serve that purpose.

“The thrust in Washington is from the wild lands in,” Bell said, “So they want to log big trees in the back country, saying we need to stop the wildfire before it spreads to the communities which has statistically proven not to work.”

Instead, Bell thinks the focus should be on the communities outward. That would include building fire breaks, helping people thin around their homes and giving people the option to put in metal roofs.

Still, Bell thinks living in the forest will always have inherent risks.

Even though her home came so close to the Eagle Creek Fire, Pate said it’s a risk worth taking. Still, she’s hopeful extra work in the forest would help.

“There’s still a lot of fuel left out here, a lot of stuff that needs to be taken care of, a lot of hazards trees that need to be taken out,” Pate said. “But that’s just the start of it, there’s so much more work that needs to be done.”