By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- A legislative budget writing committee has passed a bill freeing the Oregon Department of Forestry to deploy resources to keep small wildfires from becoming large.
House Bill 2050 also evenly splits the cost of fighting large-scale wildfires between forest landowners and the state.
Currently, landowners pay the first $10 million of the annual costs of fighting large-scale wildfires through assessments on private forestland, a harvest tax on forest products and a surcharge on improved lots.
The formula has resulted in landowners paying the bulk of firefighting costs for the past two decades.
Oregon State Forester Doug Decker characterized the change as "historic."
"I think that what you have seen here in terms of the change to the way Oregon pays for fire is a historic development," Decker said. "It has been many years in the making."
The bill allows the state to use $5 million from its Forestland Protection Fund for initial attack on small fires. Current policy allows for only $2 million from the fund to be used for initial attack.
The funds would be used to deploy equipment and firefighters in staging areas in advance of a fire when conditions warrant, according to Dan Postrel, a spokesman for the department.
The Ways and Means Natural Resources Subcommittee also on June 13 moved forward a department budget of $306 million, up nearly $10 million from its current budget.
Decker said he was "very pleased" with the budget.
"I think this is a budget that allows us to make some important investments in firefighting and really protect the general fund in terms of large-fire costs," Decker said.
The budget includes funding for an Eastern Oregon Forest Collaboration to help increase the pace and scale of forest restoration work on the east side.
It includes funding to conduct monitoring in the Elliott State Forest, and $7.6 million in lottery bonds to complete the purchase of the Gilchrist Forest in Central Oregon.
The department is looking to purchase an additional 26,000 acres, bringing the Gilchrist's total to 69,000 acres.
HB2050 and the department's budget now are in the full Ways and Means Committee.