Mar 21, 2024 - Climate

Future funding for Oregon wildfires still up in the air

A plane drops retardant over a wildfire.

Firefighters respond to the Grandview Fire in 2021. Photo: Oregon Department of Forestry via Getty Images

As wildfire season approaches, the Oregon Department of Forestry faces ongoing budgetary concerns after lawmakers failed to pass any additional funding for the agency during the short legislative session.

Why it matters: Fighting wildfires is expensive and largely unpredictable largely unpredictable. Oregon has yet to find a sustainable method for funding fire protection and suppression, even as wildfires are likely to become larger and more volatile because of climate change.

Between the lines: Wildfire costs routinely exceed ODF's budget, a problem both lawmakers and fire officials have cited in seeking a remedy.

  • When that happens, fire agencies are allowed to allocate funds from different areas within their budgets or apply for emergency assistance from the state and federal governments.
  • In 2021, $220 million of the Oregon general fund went to filling the gaps in the fire budget after 1,000 wildfires devastated large swaths of the state.

Driving the news: A handful of bills meant to address ODF's funding shortfalls by finding new sources of revenue failed in the Legislature earlier this month.

  • Democratic lawmakers proposed two somewhat opposing ballot measures that died in Senate and House committees.

Zoom in: One bill recommended raising property taxes for Oregon homeowners to fund fire protection, and the other would have reintroduced a severance tax on timber harvests similar to what is done in Washington state.

  • A separate proposal, backed by Gov. Tina Kotek, would've adjusted the state's current timber harvest tax for inflation, and reduced fees paid by timber landowners for fire protection.

Zoom out: While ODF requested $232 million for fire protection through 2025, the Legislature only allocated $196 million, according to spokesperson Joy Krawczyk, slightly less than the agency's previous biennium budget of $198 million.

  • "Emergency fires" happen when the budget is already tapped and add increased "strain on overall operations," she said.

The latest: Lawmakers have instructed ODF to work with the office of the Oregon State Fire Marshal to find sustainable funding methods ahead of the 2025 legislative session when a new two-year budget will be adopted.

  • Right now both agencies only have $87 million to work with for the next two seasons, per the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

What they're saying: One option on the table is to create a disaster fund for fire agencies to tap into when other resources are depleted, as fellow West Coast states have done.

  • "We're going into the workgroup with an open mind and all options on the table," Krawczyk told Axios.

What we're watching: It's still too early to determine what fire season will look like this year as there's more rain on the way.

  • ODF will likely have a better picture of what's to come — as to both wildfire and financial projections — by May when the weather is drier and warmer
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