New Forest Service leader tours Gorge fire, urges funding increase

September 9, 2017

New Forest Service leader tours Gorge fire, urges funding increase

Newly appointed director of the U.S. Forest Service Tony Tooke came to the Columbia River Gorge Saturday to “learn and ask questions first hand,” about the Eagle Creek Fire, the nation’s number one wildfire priority.

While Tooke is the new chief, he is a Forest Service veteran who said it has been “a long year of fighting fires” for his agency. Oregon’s Eagle Creek fire is part of a trend of mega-fires that burn hotter, faster and destroy more acres than fires in the past.

As a nation, “we are nearing a lot of fire records,” Tooke said. “We have been at the highest planning level for fires for 31 straight days, when the average number of days in past years has been 17.  There’s not a weather-ending event in sight. Around 8 million acres have burned around the country this year, when the average is around 5.7 million.”

New U.S. Forest Service director Tony Tooke at Troutdale news briefing
“There are 80 fires larger than 100 acres in the country now,” Tooke said, “when there are usually about 20 this time of year. The fire season is longer than it used to be.”

The result is that firefighters are fatigued and for the ninth year since 2002, Tooke’s agency has run out of funds to fight fires. “When that happens, it takes away from our other work, like fire prevention,” Tooke said.

Tooke is grateful that Congress recently allocated $1.6 billion for fire fighting, but predicted the cost this year will exceed $2 billion. He said that fighting large fires should not be funded by normal appropriations, because it detracts from other work his agency does to prevent fires in the first place.

“When the fire is over there will be lots of recovery work to do,” Tooke predicted. “We won’t be leaving. But there will be opportunities to salvage timber, which could mean jobs and benefits for local communities.” He is hopeful that the Forest Service can work with its forestry partners to “reduce threats from insects, disease and catastrophic fires.”

State will assist communities for as long as it takes

Flanked by state and national leaders, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown praised first responders and volunteers for working around the clock to contain the Eagle Creek Fire in a press conference Saturday.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown

Calmer weather patterns have allowed firefighters to create a buffer between the fires and nearby communities. So far, crews have also removed more than 3,000 pieces of debris from I-84.

“This closure has been difficult for people’s lives and challenging for Oregon’s businesses,” Brown said. “Our firefighting crews are literally trying to draw a line in the sand and control the fire on four fronts.”

Brown, who was also traveling to the 180,000-acre Chetco Bar Fire in Southern Oregon Saturday, assured Oregonians that crews are working aggressively to protect communities and re-open I-84. 

“While the fire season is not over, my team and I are beginning recovery efforts and will be on the ground assisting communities across the state for as long as it will take to get them back up again,” Brown said.

Senator Wyden urges funding wildfire prevention

The outlook for a change in federal forest policy to fund prevention of forest fires is strong, Oregon’s senior U.S. Senator Ron Wyden said at a Saturday news briefing at the Eagle Creek Fire emergency operation center in Troutdale.

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden speaks to media about Eagle Creek fire on Saturday in Troutdale
“For years we have been paying to fight fires with money that should be used for operations that prevent fires in the first place,” Sen. Wyden noted. “It’s been the longest running battle since the Trojan War.” But Sen. Wyden sees signs of support from Secretary for Agriculture Sonny Perdue and new Forest Service director Tony Tooke, along with new allies in Congress.

Sen. Wyden said that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has signed on as co-sponsor of a bill to fund wildfires separate from operating budgets because even his state is reeling from the effects of diseased forests.

Sen. Wyden pledged that the funding strategy has bi-partisan support and will lead to prevention practices that can reduce the number of mega-fires like the Eagle Creek Fire.  

“We are gonna get it done,” Sen. Wyden promised. “I had a full head of hair and rugged good looks when this battle started, but we are gonna get it done.”

Public Lands Commissioner calls for collective action

Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz urged collective action Saturday to improve forest health and take a more proactive approach to fighting wildfires.

Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz

“As I have traveled the state, not only are the firefighters tired but also the communities,” Franz said. “Because of that, it is going to take us working collectively together to make sure we have funding for wildfires.”

More than 100 years of forest growth has resulted in more fuel for wildfires, Franz said. With help from the Good Neighbor Authority, she said crews are already working to lower wildfire risk in Washington.

“I stand with all of you,” Franz said, “to keep our neighbors safe, our communities strong and our landscapes healthy. We’ve signed the Good Neighbor Authority and we have already signed contracts to begin doing forest health treatments on the ground in Washington.”

But for now, Franz said, it will take hard work and partnership among local, state and federal leaders to reduce the impact of wildfires in Oregon and Washington.

“When fires burn through places like this,” she said, “they burn through our treasured memories, sacred places, and leave an impression on us all.”

Congressman says bipartisanship needed to fight wildfires

Back from Washington, D.C., Oregon Congressman Peter Defazio called for a bipartisan solution to give agencies tools to combat bigger, stronger wildfires.

Congressman Peter DeFazio

“This has got to stop,” DeFazio said. “We have to adequately fund these fires. Fires know no political boundaries, they know no partisan boundaries. We have to do something to get ahead of this problem.”

DeFazio, a Springfield native, noted wildfires across Oregon prevented him from seeing his next door neighbor’s house last weekend. The intensity of the fires, he said, is unlike those of past years.

“The intensity of many of the fires we are seeing today is unprecedented because we have been repressing and mismanaging the forests for over a century,” DeFazio said. “Congress really needs to get its act together.”

For Gorge native Rep. Greg Walden, loss from fire is personal

For Oregon congressman and Hood River resident Greg Walden, the Eagle Creek fire is a great personal loss.

Congressman Greg Walden

“It breaks your heart to see this great part of our state burning,” Rep. Walden said after touring the fire on Saturday. “I love the Gorge. I grew up here and backpacked down the Eagle Creek trail. Now I’m passionate about how we will fix the damage, which requires urgency.”

While Rep. Walden saw burnt trees on ridges that looked like skeletons, he also saw many trees that will survive the fire. “We need to make sure the people who manage the forests have the tools to reduce the fire loads, through thinning and other prevention methods.”

On Friday, Rep. Walden introduced a bill that would expedite restoration efforts in the Gorge after the fire. “The bill would let professionals do their job quicker, salvage the trees that have value, that can help fund the restoration.” It is urgent to stabilize the steep hills in the Gorge to prevent runoff into the streams, he said. “We are going to need expedited authorities to get the work done soon,” Rep. Walden said.

“People on both sides of the river want to work to restore it after the fire. This is a national scenic area: we don’t want to be a national snag area,” Rep. Walden said, referring to the term for a downed dead tree.

“People in my town of Hood River are still pretty nervous,” Rep. Walden said. “The winds are picking up again. There are new evacuation warnings and we know how quickly fires can spread.”