Oregon’s work to minimize wildfires gets a boost from federal legislation
Additionally, Oregon’s portion of $5 billion to fortify the electrical grid against extreme weather is unknown, and utilities will likely need to apply for the money themselves.
Oregon will likely tackle much quicker a long list of projects already planned to help cope with wildfires that have become increasingly catastrophic in the state.
From making homes in forested areas safer to clearing forest debris left untended for sometimes decades, the federal money comes on top of an already-robust plan approved by state legislators earlier this year.
The Legislature appropriated $200 million for a range of wildfire mitigation projects. Now, the state will add about $39 million to that and a portion of $5 billion available from the federal government for states to better safeguard power transmission systems. Such systems have been blamed for starting massive wildfires in California.
The money is part of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was signed by President Joe Biden on Monday.
The spending package has been in the works for months and passed the U.S. Senate in August.
Despite the lead time, Oregon state agencies most directly involved in the eventual distribution of the money had little information to share this week with Oregonians about what’s going to happen.
State agencies and Gov. Kate Brown’s office said the list of wildfire prevention projects Oregon needs to fund is long, and new federal dollars will likely enhance plans already in place.
The timeline for receiving any of the money is unknown.
The additional $39 million infusion will go to state agencies over five years. Overall, the infrastructure bill allocated $8 billion to states for wildfire risk mitigation, including community defense grants, mechanical thinning, firefighting forces, controlled burns and funding the Collaborative Forest Restoration Program.
That program involves state and federal agencies collaborating on large-scale forest and habitat restoration projects nationwide.
Exact dollar amounts and the percentage of Oregon’s $39 million slice of the pie that agencies like the Oregon Department of Forestry might receive are unknown, and could be coordinated with federal agencies that also control about half the forests and grazing land in the state. Likewise, the federal dollars those agencies receive from the infrastructure bill, like the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, could be shared, or spending could be coordinated with Oregon’s state agencies.
The $39 million represents just 7% of the $533 million the state and federal government spent on wildfire suppression in Oregon in 2018 alone.
According to Charles Boyle, deputy communications director for Brown, they’ve been discussing for a year where extra federal money might go. He wrote via email that the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response, a volunteer group of more than 100 that contributed to the state’s plans for wildfire mitigation, suppression and recovery, included estimates for significant costs that could be shouldered by federal dollars.
Those included $12 million in grants for technical assistance to local governments, $5.6 million to update the air cleaning systems in at least 2,240 facilities statewide and forest restoration that would cost, on average, $200 million annually.
That plan was developed in 2019 and codified in Senate Bill 762, which passed this summer and came with $220 million in state funding dedicated to projects that prevent and respond to growing wildfire risks.
That is five times the federal dollars coming into the state for wildfire mitigation from the infrastructure bill.
Projects outlined in the state legislation include updating building codes so new structures can better withstand wildfires, expanding the state’s firefighting force, tackling an extensive backlog of forest restoration work and beefing up the fire resiliency of the state’s electrical grid.
The state Forestry Department plays a large role in executing the state legislation and stands to be the state agency with the greatest power over where the federal wildfire dollars go in the state.
Despite that role, an agency spokesperson said agency officials don’t yet know the specifics of how much money they’ll receive and where it will go.
The Office of the State Fire Marshal, part of the Oregon State Police, could be in charge of helping to distribute dollars to community partners, according to Public Information Officer Alison Green. Green said the office helps coordinate distribution of grants and resources with other state agencies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“The infrastructure bill has some exciting things for forest health,” Green said. “How they’ll come to local communities is not fleshed out yet.”
Green said the office was looking at dollars currently earmarked for rural areas, and said the fire marshal’s office would work to ensure local groups and communities are aware of any new resources.
“It’s just more money to help,” she said. “More hands make less work.”
Fortifying the electrical grid
The state legislation directs fortifying the electrical grid to withstand or avoid wildfire, with the Public Utilities Commission acting as the regulatory body. Most power transmission lines that course through Oregon forests are privately owned.
No estimate is available yet for how much federal money could be used on that work, which would include greater attention to vegetation around utility poles and towers, restoration and upgrades of poles and circuitry, and installing technology that can redirect power from problem areas to undamaged areas as well as potentially moving some transmission underground.
The PUC does require utilities companies plan for extreme weather and requires that they produce wildfire mitigation plans. This December, utilities will submit their latest plans for review.
In the end, a spokesperson wrote, “The utilities themselves are the ones that make investments in their respective transmission and distribution systems.”
Spokesmen for Portland General Electric and Pacific Power, which combined provide electricity for two-thirds of Oregonians, praised the infrastructure bill in emailed statements, and expressed an eagerness over the $5 billion in new federal funding.
Portland General Electric will “work closely with community leaders, partners and other utilities,” to figure out where grant money would go, according to spokeswoman Andrea Platt.
Pacific Power spokesperson Drew Hanson wrote the company has already invested in new efforts to mitigate climate change risks to their operations. This includes hiring staff meteorologists who can monitor weather constantly, and increased vegetation management in areas at high-risk for fires.
Despite vague notions of where, exactly, the money would flow first, U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, who pushed for Oregon’s share of the $1.2 trillion federal package, said they had been hearing from people around the state about what should go into infrastructure legislation.
“The $8 billion for wildfire mitigation came from talks with the U.S. Forest Service and Oregonians everywhere; and the $5 billion nationally for his Disaster Safe Power Grid Act developed from the needs identified by county commissioners and local officials after last year’s devastating round of wildfires and power outages,” a Wyden spokesman wrote in an email.
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