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Ore. Forestry Officials Seek $40M To Pay Record Wildfire Costs

Jeff Barnard, Associated Press
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File photo of a firefighter spraying water while fighting a fire near an Indian reservation. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

File photo of a firefighter spraying water while fighting a fire near an Indian reservation. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — After going through a record $122 million fighting big wildfires this year, the Oregon Department of Forestry is asking the Legislature for an extra $40 million to cover its 2013 costs and for greater spending authority next year.

The issue was taken up Friday by the Legislature’s Emergency Board in Salem, which handles spending when the full Legislature is not in session.

The department expects wildfire spending to continue increasing as climate change presses a trend of more and bigger wildfires nationwide, said department spokesman Dan Postrel.

“It is not a predictable progression,” said Postrel. “You can still have some slower years, but over the long term you see a trend … which makes it very difficult to budget for these things.”

Lightning and drought spread wildfire to more state-protected land this year than any year since 1951 — and eight times the 10-year average.

The total was 162 square miles on state, private and U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands protected by the Oregon department.

Oregon spent $122 million on large fires this year, far more than recent years. Rising costs are driven by greater reliance on expensive technology, such as air tankers and helicopters, as well as more and bigger fires, Postrel said.

After federal reimbursements, $10 million from private landowners, and $25 million from a special insurance policy, the department was still $40 million short, according to documents submitted to the Legislature.

The state emergency fund only has $30 million, so the Natural Resources Subcommittee of the Joint Ways and Means Committee recommended deferring the allocation decision to the full Legislature, which convenes in February. The subcommittee also recommended increasing the department’s spending authority for next year by $124 million, $12 million less than the department sought.

Postrel said the department ran through its normal spending authority for two years in just one, and needed the increase to be able to pay for operations next year.

A report from Climate Central Research in Princeton, N.J., submitted to the subcommittee, noted that $1.5 billion has been spent fighting wildfires in Oregon since 2000. The figure includes state and federal spending. Oregon is second only to California in average annual wildfire spending among western states.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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