Feds to send nearly $200 million to help communities prepare for wildfires
Oregon will receive $23.5 million, including one of the biggest grants
Wildfires in September 2020 burned a large swatch of the Oregon Cascades. (Courtesy Oregon State University)
The Biden administration will send $197 million from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law to help communities prepare for wildfires this summer, Vice President Kamala Harris and other administration officials said.
The funding represents the first round of a new $1 billion Community Wildfire Defense Grant program authorized under the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed in November 2021. Grants in the first year of the program would be available for more than 100 projects in 22 states, according to a White House fact sheet.
The funding is meant to help communities prepare for wildfires, which Harris said was preferable to responding to fires already wreaking havoc.
“The best time to fight a fire is before it starts,” she said on a call with reporters.
The funding announced Monday can be used to write or update wildfire preparedness plans or on other mitigation efforts, such as clearing highly flammable brush.
Among the largest grants was a $9.9 million disbursement to the Grant Soil and Water Conservation District in eastern Oregon to clear hazardous fuels from evacuation routes on county roads.
The New Mexico nonprofit Cimarron Watershed Alliance also received $8 million to create defensible space around homes and fuel breaks designed to stop a fire’s spread.
Archuleta County, Colorado, will also receive $1.1 million to remove hazardous fuels over 600 acres.
Harris also cited examples of $341,000 for Gila County, Arizona, for evacuation planning and clearing flammable brush around buildings and $1.4 million for North Carolina to help cities and counties develop better plans to prepare for and respond to fires.
Communities in Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota and Wisconsin will also receive grants.
A full list of grants announced Monday is available here.
The remaining roughly $800 million will be released over the next four years, Harris said.
“This is an initial round of funding,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. “This is a critical down payment.”
The Forest Service, which is part of the Agriculture Department, judged grant applications on three criteria, Vilsack said: communities that have experienced a severe disaster, are at high risk of a wildfire and are low income. All grants announced Monday met at least two of the three criteria and most met all three, he said.
The infrastructure law established the criteria, he said.
Climate change a culprit
Wildfires have become more destructive in recent decades for a variety of reasons, including hotter and drier weather because of climate change, as well as increased development in areas at high risk of fire.
Harris emphasized that wildfires were a symptom of climate change, which she said was only worsening. A Monday report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should be a call to action, she said.
“Our future is not yet written, and the solutions are at hand,” Harris said. “Let that be an alarm that lets us know that we must act with haste, and we can actually, right now, have an impact on how this all plays out.”
Prescribed burns to continue
The Forest Service plans to continue using prescribed burns to manage wildfire fuels, despite such a burn leading to massive wildfires in New Mexico last year, Vilsack said.
The Forest Service undertook a comprehensive review of prescribed burns, where firefighters purposely start and control small fires to clear brush and other flammable materials to prevent them from becoming out of control in a wildfire, following the New Mexico blazes, Vilsack said.
The Forest Service would more closely monitor local conditions when assessing whether to conduct controlled burns, but the technique remained “an important tool that we have in terms of making sure that we can reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire,” he said.
Forest Service Chief Randy Moore is scheduled to testify this week before the spending subcommittees in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate that write bills funding the Interior Department. The president’s budget request for fiscal 2024 includes a 21% increase for Interior Department wildland fire management funding.
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The federal government has approved $23.5 million to fund 10 projects in Oregon:
- Klamath Watershed Partnership, Chiloquin Wildfire Risk Reduction and Education:
$616,404 to implement 165 acres of defensible space treatments over five years; to develop and implement a “Brush Dump” program that encourages and facilitates landowner and neighborhood-conducted defensible space clean-up projects by providing up to two dump trailers for cleanup activities and then hauling brush to the dump; to design, purchase, and deploy a multi-use wildfire education trailer for community education and outreach 7-10 events per year, and a mobile information distribution point during a wildfire as needed; and to build capacity and sustainability within Chiloquin Fire and Rescue through development of a part-time Mitigation Specialist position to coordinate the activities of this project and to plan future projects.
- Douglas Electric Cooperative Fuels Treatments, Vegetation Management and Other Mitigation:
$9,151,505 to reduce fuel buildup in high-risk wildfire areas, enhance the utility right-of-way’s ability to function as fire breaks, increase forest health, and minimize the probability that Douglas Electric’s transmission and distribution system may be the origin or contributing source for the ignition of a fire. Funding from this program will enable DEC to reduce its vegetation management program to a 3-to-4-year cycle while addressing hazard trees (snags and cycle busters) not in the traditional utility space. The DEC service area covers 2200 square miles, and the project will be conducted along 1,275 miles of power lines.
- Grant Soil and Water Conservation District, Grant County Evacuation Corridor and Fuels Management Project:
$9,907,344 to perform Hazardous Fuels reduction on 308 road miles (616 shoulder miles) of County Roads that serve as evacuation routes for residences in need of treatment Additionally, treat 100,000 acres of fine fuels prioritizing areas around communities and pre-commercially thin 2,000 acres.
- Oregon Department of Forestry, John Day; Grant County Defensible Space:
$681,041 to focus on 300 acres of fuels reduction treatments for Grant County landowners in the WUI, installation of Firewise Communities and outreach and education in the high-risk communities of John Day, Mt. Vernon, Prairie City, Dayville, Granite, Monument, Canyon City, Long Creek, and Seneca.
- Baker County Community Wildfire Protection Plan update:
$246,000 to complete an update and revision to the county’s long-standing Community Wildfire Protection Plan.
- Wheeler County of Emergency Management, Wheeler County fire protection roadway shoulder clearing:
$992,815 to treat 250 miles of Wheeler County roadside right-of way fuels reduction. This will be accomplished with the purchase and use of a new tractor with 22-foot boom, mower head attachment, and 50-inch Mulching Head attachment. This will treat 50 miles per year, for a total of 250 miles, or 1,210 acres, total over the five-year period.
- Illinois Valley Soil & Water Conservation District, Community Action for Wildfire Resiliency Project:
$113,744 to treat areas within highly vulnerable Wildland-Urban Interface areas, proximate to federally managed forest lands. The proposed treatment areas range in size from 0.25 to 40 acres and are characterized by a mixture of conifer and hardwood tree species at higher elevations, and intermixed oak/pine woodlands and ceanothus brush fields at lower elevations. The proposed treatments are intended to reduce the likelihood of a wildfire originating from, or traversing, forest lands that would impact or otherwise cause loss and damage to private residences, businesses, and community assets.
- Rocky Point Fire and EMS, Rocky Point Urban Interface Community Wildfire Protection Plan:
$224,717 to update and implement the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, reduce the risk of wildland fire urban interface, and to reduce fuels where homes and resorts are currently located.
- City of Ashland, Community Wildfire Protection Plan update:
$249,700 to rewrite of Ashland’s 2004 Community Wildfire Protection Plan to enable the city to better understand wildfire risk in the built environment, integrate wildland-urban interface risk reduction projects developed in the past 19 years, wrestle with fire-adapted community issues and capacity limits, address vulnerable population knowledge gaps, and map out and prioritize community initiatives based on extensive public engagement. The Community Wildfire Protection Plan will address the 2021 Oregon State Forest Plan priority issues of climate change, diversity/equity/inclusion/social justice, wildfire mitigation capacity and recovery, forest health, and water quality and quantity.
- Curry County Soil and Water Conservation District, Gorse Fuels Treatment to Reduce Catastrophic Wildfire:
$1,338,078 to implement hazardous wildfire fuels reduction that has been prioritized in the Curry County Community Wildfire Protection Plan and the Curry County Multi-Jurisdictional Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan. This grant will be used to treat the area and reduce the wildfire risk to multiple communities from an invasive species.
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