State Forester Doug Decker listens to speakers at the Forestry Board’s public meeting in La Grande Thursday. (Chris Baxter/The Observer)
Department of Forestry officials praised the Legislature for its passage of the Wildfire Protection Act during the Oregon Board of Forestry’s public meeting at Eastern Oregon University on Thursday.
The board, ODF officials and members of the public are in La Grande for the board’s annual meeting to discuss forest health, rural communities and wildfire protection. The two-day event features numerous speakers.
ODF’s prize from the legislative session is House Bill 2050, also known as the Wildfire Protection Act, which easily passed through both chambers at the end of June and was signed by Gov. John Kitzhaber on July 8.
The bill, in part, addresses statewide severity resources to boost up-front capacity in order to suppress fires while they’re small. More than a dozen aircraft have been deployed to bases across the state already, including two single-engine air tankers (SEATs) at the La Grande Air Tanker Base.
So far, those SEATs have been “very effective,” said State Deputy Forester Paul Bell.
Showing a map of current conditions, Bell emphasized that fire season is going to get busier.
“July continues to rapidly escalate,” he said.
Regions of Southwest, Central and Northeast Oregon are all at high risk, though some counties have already experienced significant fires.
Bell said Douglas County has already had multiple fires grow to more than 200 acres. The Pacifica Fire in Josephine County burned about 500 acres last week, threatening structures and prompting Gov. Kitzhaber
ODF is in constant dispatch mode with two months of fire season remaining, Bell said, so the additional resources provided from the Wildfire Protection Act are welcome.
“Those extra tools are paying off,” he told board members.
In what Bell described as “one of the most successful” sessions for ODF, the Legislature passed several other bills of note.
HB 3109 requires the state forester and the director of the Oregon Health Authority to jointly produce a report for the 2014 legislative session on the health impacts of last year’s Pole Creek Fire, which burned about 26,000 acres.
HB 3199 bans the release of sky lanterns and the use of exploding targets and tracer ammunition during fire season, things that were previously monitored through ODF’s public-use restrictions.
Another law, HB 2051, extends tax privileges on forest products harvested in forests. Money from the tax will be directed to Oregon State University’s College of Forestry.
State Forester Doug Decker called the legislative session “very positive.” He attributed ODF’s success in the Legislature to a high level of coordination and communication between agencies, with the governor and with legislators.
With a good session behind him, Decker is already gearing up to go back for more when the 2014 session opens in February.
“We’ve begun to develop some ideas,” Decker said. “I wouldn’t call them legislative concepts, but I’ll call them legislative ideas that we’re going to be running up the flagpole.”
The public meeting reconvened Friday morning for a field tour around Elgin. Tour stops will focus on forest management issues and how those relate to rural communities.