Erosion control and economic impact studies are the immediate priorities the Chetco Bar Fire Recovery Council wants addressed next month at the state Legislature, the group decided Monday morning.
The council, created by Gov. Kate Brown, met for the first time to prioritize its goals for recovery from the wildfire that burned 191,125 acres in the burn scar of the Biscuit Fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
The fire came within 5 miles of Brookings, burned six homes, forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents and cost about $70 million to extinguish.
“I don’t think there is any reason to delay our work,” said Alex Campbell, the Regional Solutions coordinator on the council. “The charter says we should have our recommendations to the governor by the end of December. I don’t see why we should be any later than that.”
The council is comprised of elected officials from Curry and Josephine counties and representatives of Oregon Regional Solutions, Indian tribes, Business Oregon, the Department of Environmental Quality and the South Coast Development Council, among others.
Its goal is to notify the governor of the impacts and assistance the area needs related to economic recovery, public safety and natural resource recovery.
The Burn Area Recovery Team recommended the council’s top priority — mostly due to pending winter rains — be how erosion control and anticipated debris and landslides should be addressed. Both will end up affecting turbidity in the Chetco River over the next few years; the Chetco River is the sole provider of drinking water for Brookings and Harbor.
Port Manager Gary Dehlinger said he was uncertain how to estimate a cost that might incur due to silt build-up in the port or any damage that could be caused by logs floating downriver.
“I don’t know what it’s going to look like this year, next year,” he said. “It’s going to be several year’s worth. Part of the problem is, we haven’t been impacted yet and we don’t know when we will be.”
Some suggested he use the effects of the Biscuit Fire as a template, but that fire didn’t cause the port a lot of damage. Others encouraged him to assume the worst and request the funding to address that.
City Manager Gary Milliman has applied for three grants to address the anticipated challenges to be faced at the water treatment plant.
And subcommittees within the council plan to determine a way to assess the economic damage to the area, which was already hamstrung with a closed salmon season and a shortened bottom-fishing season.
In a meeting with the governor late last month, local restaurateur George Rhodes said he lost about 65 percent of business. The owner of At River’s Edge RV park on the south bank of the Chetco River said he lost the entire season due to fishing restrictions and fire evacuations.
Many expressed concern about the short- and long-term ramifications of the fire on tourism to the area, another issue the council plans to address.
South Coast Lumber, which lost an estimated 11,000 acres of trees in the conflagration, might only be able to salvage a third of that before they are lost to insects and rot, said Court Boice, a member of the council.
“With respect to salvage logging, they will need to comply with the National Environmental Protection Act process,” Milliman noted. “And (I was told) they had seven lawsuits filed on their NEPA approval for the Biscuit Fire.”
Salvage logging, he added, could keep numerous jobs in the community for years and bring tax revenue to the county.
Other issues include repairing recreation areas, trails and backcountry roads, the emergence of noxious weeds, endangered species habitat loss and the effect anticipated landslides and debris could have on fish.
Some items the council would like addressed can only be accomplished at the federal level — and could take months, if not years.
Despite all the fires that raged through the state this summer, Oregon failed to meet the minimum financial threshold to declare a federal disaster. Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, said he argued at the state level that including the value of the trees lost would have brought that figure well over the threshold.
“As far as federal disaster funds, with Texas and (Hurricane) Harvey and Puerto Rico, Oregon doesn’t really have a (chance),” Boice said, of securing federal disaster funds. “But Oregon has a story, and we got hit really hard. We need to really work on this.”
Mega-fires are burning more frequently in the West, this summer scorching almost 9 million acres of land, killing dozens of people and costing the U.S. Forest Service $2.41 billion.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden has proposed a Wildfire Disaster Funding Act that would set aside funding for agencies that exceed their fire suppression budgets to put out remaining fires and end what is called “fire borrowing.”
The problem is that there is not enough money allocated to fight those fires, so the federal government transfers money from fire mitigation programs to fight fires the programs were intended to prevent.
This year, “fire borrowing” totaled $576.5 million.
Wyden’s proposal would also raise the budget cap for disaster funding so wildfires wouldn’t siphon money from recovery efforts, nor require other natural disasters to “compete” with wildfires for funding.
The Senate passed a bipartisan funding bill last week to help with the cost of fighting wildfires in Western states as part of a larger disaster funding bill.
“However, the funding does not fix the long-term problem of consistently underfunding fire suppression,” Wyden said. “And that forces federal agencies to steal from fire prevention.”
Another challenge facing firefighters is that the Forest Service has been “decommissioning” roads into the backcountry in recent years making it difficult to access fires.
The council plans to meet often in the next two months.