The Oregon National Guard received $1 million Monday to train and deploy 500 guardsmen to fight wildfires in Oregon this summer.
It is part of a $7 million package U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, secured last year in the 2018 defense bill for such efforts across the West. The original request was $755,000 of that $7 million, said state communications director Sara Hottman.
And Monday, Merkley and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden announced the Department of Defense appropriations bill that passed out of committee Monday includes an additional $7 million in the 2019 budget to train National Guard members. The bill now goes to a full Senate vote; it will eventually be merged with legislation from the U.S. House of Representatives and signed into law, Hottman said.
Fire crews throughout the West are fighting massive conflagrations that are racing past 2017’s record-setting pace for this time of year. Among them is the Klondike Fire in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest east of Curry County that has already burned about 25,000 acres.
That and the Carr Fire in Shasta County and fires near Redding and Clear Lake in Central California have burned down hundreds of homes, forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people and stretched firefighting resources thin.
The U.S. Forest Service has even brought back into its ranks retired firefighters to help. In some places, the National Guard is protecting neighborhoods from looting.
Now, more of them will be assisting firefighters on the ground, Merkley said.
“You can’t fight a fire without firefighters — and as we saw during last year’s devastating fire season, shortages of trained firefighters can put a huge squeeze on fire suppression efforts at the very moment when they are most needed,” Merkley said. “We know that the men and women of our National Guard are brave, disciplined and committed to protecting our communities. Getting them trained up early will mean more people fighting these huge fires more quickly.”
“In Oregon and across the West, wildfires are the natural disasters that threaten our communities,” Wyden said. “There’s no doubt that getting more firefighters on the front lines to combat these blazes will save lives and homes. Sen. Merkley and I have been proud to keep working to allow more of the brave men and women of the National Guard to get specialized training to protect our communities from wildfires.”
Gov. Kate Brown applauded the senators’ efforts in aggressively pursuing money to fight the fires.
“Worsening wildfire and drought conditions continue threaten the health of Oregonians, our communities and economy,” she said, “and state and local agencies have been increasingly challenged to respond with limited resources.”
Major Stephen Bomar, public affairs officer with the Oregon National Guard, said the pre-training enables them to get out on the fire quicker.
Merkley and Wyden last fall secured both authorization in the 2018 defense bill and $7 million in the 2018 spending bill to provide states like Oregon the firefighting resources they need to respond to catastrophic wildfires. Oregon’s share of the funding will train at least 375 members. Training for Oregon National Guard members begins July 9.