Gov. Kate Brown (D) blames a “wind event” and climate change for the conflagrations. I’m a seventh-generation Oregonian, and like others who’ve paid attention to what’s been happening here for a long time, I know better. Our state is ablaze for reasons much deeper than weather. For years, we’ve suffered from misguided priorities and dramatic failures of leadership. Now, the bill is coming due.
Consider, for example, the gross mismanagement of Oregon’s forests. Under an 80-year-old contract, responsibility for most forest lands falls to the state. The understanding is that the state’s sustainable harvesting and replanting of timber on these lands would provide long-term income for rural counties.
But in recent decades, political power in Oregon has accumulated in urban Portland and its surrounding suburbs. Residents of these areas — insulated from the dangers of land mismanagement — have insisted on preserving the forests as untouchable playgrounds. Since 2001, the state has overprioritized recreation and environmentalist concerns such as ecotourism. As a result, Oregon’s forests were allowed to become overgrown, creating fire hazards. The state has screwed up so badly that, in November last year, it was ordered by a jury to pay Oregon’s rural counties $1.1 billion for failing to uphold its contractual obligations for responsible forest management.
In February, I joined fellow members of the Timber Unity movement — representing more than 62,000 loggers, truckers, ranchers, miners, farmers and other working Oregonians who rely on the land — who met with Brown in Salem, the state capital. We made it quite clear that the state’s management failures with forests and rural lands would lead to a catastrophic, carbon-releasing fire event. Our warnings went unheeded.
Forestry management isn’t the only place where Oregon’s leaders have fallen down on the job. They should have seen California’s deadly 2018 Paradise fire as a wake-up call to ensure the safety of the state’s power grid and the adequacy of disaster-response plans. When I was a state representative serving on Oregon’s Emergency Management Committee, I witnessed hours of testimony about the state’s lack of preparedness for a major disaster — and saw the legislature ignore the warnings. In the legislative sessions following the California catastrophe, no effort was undertaken by lawmakers to evaluate the safety of the state’s electrical utility systems. Now, coastal Oregon is burning because winds and overgrown trees knocked down power lines, sparking dangerous fires.
Even more outrageous is what the legislature has done with Oregon’s Wildfire Damage Housing Relief Account Program, created in 2015 to help lower-income Oregonians rebuild in the event of a disaster like the one now under way. The program was never well-funded to begin with. But as state Rep. David Brock Smith (R) told me this week, in the most recent legislative session, lawmakers swept the unused money in it into the general fund where it can be used to pay for other pet initiatives. Now, the state is directing desperate Oregonians to get on a waiting list for financial support that lawmakers know simply isn’t there.
Our leaders’ indifference to Oregonians’ suffering is part of what enabled these fires to start in the first place. For more than a hundred nights, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler (D) and the governor have tolerated rioters rampaging in the state’s largest city; violent protesters’ interests apparently are valued above those of Portlanders who are losing their livelihoods. The protests, ostensibly tied to the Black Lives Matter campaign, won’t address failing public schools, declining homeownership and the other very real problems facing Portland’s African American community. But the riots are stretching Oregon’s first responders thin, as state troopers have been dispatched to back up Portland’s struggling police department — just when those first responders could have been patrolling state forests protecting against fires.
The entire state has been watching for months as Oregon’s leaders have turned a blind eye to lawlessness in Portland’s streets. What message does this send? After countless cases of looting have gone unpunished in Portland, people are now looting the homes of wildfire evacuees. At least one wildfire is a suspected case of arson.
Oregon is a state that is losing control. The governor can keep blaming climate change, but that’s no excuse for ignoring problems that have been completely within the state’s ability to manage for a very long time.