State Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, said he is eager to tackle the problems created by the Chetco Bar Fire last summer in the upcoming legislative session, along with promoting cross-laminated timber, economic development and addressing the opioid crisis.
Smith’s biggest concern is how the U.S. Forest Service addresses the effects of the 191,125-acre Chetco Bar wildfire. Particularly, he said, in how it damaged local economies and how national forest policies, in the minds of many, resulted in mega-fires far worse than those of decades past.
Smith sits on the governor’s Chetco Bar Fire Recovery Council, formed to analyze the fire’s repercussions and determine the best ways to prevent wildfire in the future.
“Forest management practices must change to adapt to changing conditions on the landscape for the protection of citizens, their communities, businesses and the resources that built them and are meant to sustain them — period,” Smith said in a wrap-up of the 2017 legislative session. “We cannot solely burn or suppress or cut our way to a solution, and we have to work together using all three in a prescriptive manner across the landscape.”
A better plan, Smith said, would be to harvest the sequestered carbon land base — trees — and replant a “diverse carbon-sequestering forest system” that will adapt to changing conditions on the landscape.
“We will never eliminate fire, but we know prescribed burn emissions are far less toxic than that of wildfire,” he said. “We also know that roughly 25 percent of the sequestered carbon within the timber resource is released during wildfire, while the other 75 percent is released over the following years as the resource decays.”
Economy and fire
Smith said data collected so far regarding the economic impact of the fire is inconsistent, with the state employment department saying 10 jobs were lost in Curry County and 100 in Josephine County.
“That estimate for Curry County appears to be far too low,” he said. “More than 20 businesses have expressed interest in disaster recovery lending from SBA and report much more significant job losses.”
Most of those impacted were those in the tourism industry due to fewer visitors coming here during the fire.
“This very likely translates to hundreds of lost jobs in the relatively small Brookings economy,” Smith said. “The impact varied between several businesses that were essentially shut down for three to four weeks, to those losing 40 to 60 percent of revenue for the peak month.”
In the short term, the council suggests immediately making $250,000 available for economic development to guarantee or buy down interest rates for businesses that need money to survive, and creating a new state emergency disaster relief program to include low-interest loans for businesses impacted by disasters.
The council also wants $25,000 or $65,000 — the amount depends how a grant request from Brookings goes — toward the city’s economic impact analysis.
The wildfire will bring an increased threat of soil erosion, debris flow, landslides and siltation for years, scientists have said.
Brookings is pursuing grant money to determine the effects of the fire on its drinking water, and the Forest Service and BLM will focus on culvert repair, removing dangerous trees and treating the area for invasive plants. The council believes burned timber needs to be salvaged immediately, and buffer zones along roadways should be expanded to help regrowth of the forest and the local economy.
The group is also requesting $65,000 for fish habitat mitigation and $50,000 for juvenile steelhead surveys in the Chetco River watershed.
While everyone from politicians to landowners learned a lot about wildfire last year, those educational opportunities can continue throughout the forest’s recovery, Smith said.
“Studying and understanding the effects of the Chetco Bar Fire is a tremendous opportunity to engage students, community members and visitors in understanding the process of natural regeneration and recovery that takes place in the wake of fire,” he said. “The council believes scientific research and more advanced forestry practices represent an opportunity for future economic development and, to that end, engaging youth is a critical component of building that future workforce.”
The council will request $75,000 to fund a citizen-science study of the impact of fire and sedimentation on salmonid populations, and recommends it consider Oregon Resources Research Education Center, a new educational nature-based educational nonprofit near Ophir, as a partner.
The council is also asking for $60,000 for the Curry County Road Department to pay for storm monitoring and cleaning and repair of culverts, swales, bridges and roadways.
“It is estimated that the three years of labor and materials to address flooding and erosion resulting from the fire to be more than 850 labor hours and $35,000 in materials,” Smith said, “and that assumes no roadway or bridge failures occur as a result of additional erosion.”
The council also wants the Office of Emergency Management to continue tracking the impacts of landslides and debris flows on road, port and other infrastructure and continue evaluating the area’s potential to obtain a federal disaster declaration.
Tourism and recreation
The Chetco Bar Fire Council also said the recovery process must involve trail maintenance, particularly as brush tries to impinge on footpaths, trees fall across them and landslides threaten steep areas. The council also wants more bars and boat-launch areas opened as soon as possible.
“The interests of residents and potential visitors should be an important consideration in decisions,” Smith said, adding that South County entities need to recommit to the Wild Rivers Coast brand in its tourism outreach efforts. The council is asking for $50,000 for small grants to support cooperative marketing.
The council also recommends the state establish a task force to develop recommendations to build air-quality shelters to mitigate smoke from wildfires, and use forest debris as biomass energy.
Such management of the forest would also taper into Smith’s promotion of the cross-laminate timber market, which involves using steel, concrete and wood to make taller but lighter, more seismically resilient, fire-resistant buildings.
“The unfortunate irony of a building made of carbon sequestering renewable timber resources (trees)?” he said. “The beams and materials have to be transported from Vancouver, British Columbia, while we have raw resources only miles away. Think about that for a moment. Combining these technologies will create working-family jobs while sequestering carbon for generations.”
Smith also sits on the governor’s opioid council, which is addressing the crisis sweeping the nation.
In the next session, they hope to create mandatory prescription drug monitoring programs for all licensed prescribers, get a report on barriers to getting treatment and develop recovery programs in four parts of the state, including Curry County. That program, currently under way in Rhode Island, puts opioid patients in contact with recovery centers and is now recommended as a best practice by the National Governors Association, Smith said.
Reach Jane Stebbins at email@example.com.