SALEM — A signature-gathering campaign is underway that would allow Oregonians to donate all or part of their tax returns to volunteer firefighting groups across the state.

In 2017, the Oregon Legislature passed Senate Bill 378, which added the Oregon Volunteer Firefighters Association to the state’s charitable tax checkoff program. The program includes 29 approved charities, giving taxpayers the choice of whether to make a donation from their personal income tax refund.

According to the Oregon Department of Revenue, the program gathered more than $21 million for charities between 2010 and 2018.

Under SB 378, the nonprofit Oregon Volunteer Firefighters Association still must collect 10,000 signatures to appear as an option for charitable giving on tax filings. The organization has come up short of that mark for the last three years.

TimberUnity, a grassroots group representing rural interests, has now taken up the effort and is encouraging its network of partners to sign the petition. Signatures are due by June 30, 2021, to appear on tax returns for 2022.

Julie Parrish, a board member of TimberUnity and former state representative, said collecting 10,000 signatures is no easy feat for a smaller local group like the Oregon Volunteer Firefighters Association, which lacks the national backing of larger approved charities like the American Red Cross, Planned Parenthood or the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

“What we have at TimberUnity is the ability to reach a lot of people, and reach them quickly,” Parrish said. “Our goal is to help them cross that finish line.”

As wildfires have burned more than 1 million acres across Oregon in 2020, Parrish said volunteer firefighters are a first line of defense to protect rural communities. “They provide critical public safety infrastructure, yet they are begging people for donations,” she said.

Parrish served in the Oregon House of Representatives as a Republican from West Linn for eight years, from 2011-2019. She said it took 14 years before lawmakers finally passed SB 378. She credited fellow former Rep. Deborah Boone, a moderate Democrat representing the northern Oregon coast, for her tenacity in pursuing the bill.

At the time, Parrish said they sought to have Gov. Kate Brown waive the 10,000 signature requirement for the Oregon Volunteer Firefighters Association, but were unsuccessful. Parrish said TimberUnity will post the petition on its website, and encourage political candidates to gather signatures during meet-and-greets leading up to the November election.

Mike Pihl, TimberUnity board president, said the 2020 fire season has been upsetting, prompting the group to take action.

“It is ridiculous that an organization that is a public safety entity is being made to gather signatures so that Oregonians can easily donate to volunteer firefighters, which are the backbone of rural fire prevention,” Pihl said in a statement.

Pihl added that TimberUnity was not approached by the Oregon Volunteer Firefighters Association with the request, but was “just the right thing to do.”

“Had there not been this signature gathering requirement, they might have better budgets and be better prepared to be in the field right now,” Pihl said. “People shouldn’t have had to donate sack lunches to firefighters or buy them (personal protective equipment). Putting out a call to action to get this done is the least we can do to show our gratitude to people who are putting it all on the line for their neighbors.”

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