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Fire bill allows quicker response


Cost for fighting fires would be borne by both the landowners and the state


By MITCH LIES


Capital Press


SALEM -- A legislative committee has passed a bill that frees up the Oregon Department of Forestry to deploy resources for keeping small fires from becoming large ones.


House Bill 2050 also would split the cost of fighting large-scale wildfires evenly between forest landowners and the state.


The bill's centerpiece is a provision allowing the state to use $5 million from its Forestland Protection Fund for initial attack on small fires.


Under existing policy, only $2 million from the fund can be used for initial attack. The funds would be used to deploy equipment and firefighters in staging areas in advance of a fire when lightning strikes are predicted in an area.


"Our goal is to have 97 percent of all our fires controlled at less than 10 acres," state Forester Doug Decker said.


Decker said a coalition of diverse interests worked for two years to develop the concepts behind the bill. Small woodland owners, large-scale timber operations, conservationists and others testified in support of the bill in a hearing Feb. 28 before the House Agriculture Committee.


"House Bill 2050, I believe, will give the department the resources it needs to keep fire-fighting costs down by reducing the size of the catastrophic fires in Eastern Oregon," testified Lyle Defrees, a Baker County rancher and woodlot owner.


The bill calls for landowners to pay an additional $3 million into the state's Forestland Protection Fund with the promise that under a six-year phase schedule, landowner costs eventually would decline as the state and private landowners evenly split the cost of fight large-scale wildfires.


Under existing policy, landowners pay the first $10 million of the annual costs of fighting large-scale wildfires through assessments on private forest acreage, a harvest tax on forest products and a surcharge on improved lots.


The state pays the next $15 million, if needed, for fighting large-scale fires, before an insurance policy kicks in.


The formula has resulted in landowners paying the lion's share of the costs.


Since 1993, landowners have paid out $156.8 million for fighting wildfires, while the state has paid $34.1 million, said Kristina McNitt, executive director of the Oregon Forest Industries Council.


Not since 2002 has the state run through the entire $25 million in the fund and used its wildfire protection insurance policy.


The Agriculture Committee moved the bill with a do-pass recommendation to the joint Ways and Means Committee.



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