Legislature Poised to Cut Firefighting Budget Despite Drought Threat

Hundreds of square miles in Okanogan County burned in July 2014. Photo courtesy of Rep. Joel Kretz.

As massive flames swirled in the hot, dry winds of July, thousands of people rushed away from their homes in forested areas of Okanogan County in north-central Washington. Escaping through dense smoke, families sought refuge from a firestorm that raged out of control for more than a week, spreading rapidly and eventually consuming more than 400 square miles.

As the danger subsided, people went home — except for some 350 families who had no homes left. But many considered themselves lucky to have survived the worst wildfire in Washington state history — to be known forever as the Carleton Complex fire, a merging of several lightning-sparked blazes near the towns of Carlton, Twisp and Winthrop.

Nearly a year later, state officials are bracing for a fierce new fire season, with hot, dry conditions they fear will bring new threats to Western Washington as well as Eastern Washington. The Department of Natural Resources is asking for extra money to ensure quick attacks against wildfires when they are small and to focus on reducing fire risks in the remaining forests.

But so far, the agency has received a rather cool response from the Legislature.

With more than 70 fires already reported this year, officials say that by high summer conditions could become as severe as last year, when some fuels in Eastern Washington were literally as dry as matchsticks. 

Even on the wet side of the state, weather forecasters predict hot and dry conditions in the Puget Sound region and along the coast. By July, even Western Washington could face the threat of a severe fire.

Gov. Jay Inslee two weeks ago expanded a drought emergency declaration to cover nearly half the state.

After the Wars, Common Ground in Oregon's Forests

A pile burning operation in the Deschutes National Forest clears undergrowth to lessen the risk of megafire. Credit: William Saunders 

ASHLAND -- This spring’s high school graduating seniors were newborns the last time the U.S. Forest Service proposed a major forest thinning project around here — and the outcome was a disaster. Nicknamed “HazRed,” the controversial fuels-reduction proposal included plans to commercially log large sections of forest, with trees as wide as six feet reportedly marked for removal. In the explosive public backlash, residents bombarded the Forest Service with negative comments, conservation groups filed appeals, a district ranger was fired (then rehired), and years of administrative and legal wrangling undermined the public’s already uneasy trust.

“The Forest Service had a different direction then,” says Marko Bey, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Lomakatsi Restoration Project, which manages forest restoration projects in Oregon and northern California. “There was a lot of contention.”

Today the buzz and rattle of chainsaws along a steep slope in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest tells a story of redemption in Ashland’s watershed. It’s an unseasonably balmy morning in March, and a 12-man Lomakatsi crew is carefully clearing out densely packed, spindly fir trees from around the thick trunks of pines and black oaks. The brush buildup is the legacy of a century-plus of suppressing all forest fires, an official government policy now widely understood to be misguided. Fires clean out forests. Now, though, forests around Ashland and across the state are so packed with dense growth that fears of unnaturally catastrophic wildfires loom.

This summer could be especially severe. As crew members cut and slash their way across the 90-acre unit, Mt. Ashland towers in the distance, its paltry snowpack a reminder of the abnormally warm, dry weather that parked itself over southern Oregon and much of the Northwest last winter. With fire officials saying these conditions could usher in a doozy of a fire season, every treated unit counts. Come summer, the work might make the difference between a manageable fire and a catastrophic blaze.

The Lomakatsi crew labors on. “One acre at a time,” Bey says. “One stick at a time. If we have a fire in here, we’re going to be able to deal with it much better than five years ago.”

Bey’s stick-by-stick approach is no joke. His technical team carefully plans treatments in advance, identifying landslide hazard zones (look for the orange-and-black ribbons) and selecting which trees to cut (marked blue). And while most of the thinned brush is piled and burned to reduce fire fuels, the crews also leave some downed trees untouched to mimic natural “wind-fall” events.

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Washington Senate Budget Draws on State Toxics Account to Avoid Tax Increases

State lawmakers visiting a toxic cleanup site in 2010. Photo: Flickr/Port of Tacoma

Whether you call it budget trickery or prudent financing, a politically divided Legislature continues to tussle over how to spend more than $300 million collected from a tax on hazardous materials, including gasoline and other petroleum products.

Environmentalists argue that the Republican-controlled Senate has gone haywire, proposing a budget that would overspend anticipated revenues from the tax by $200 million over the next two years. But Senate Republicans say they are using a cash-flow method approved in 2013, and they are confident the money won’t run out.

The tax, called the Hazardous Substance Tax, was imposed in 1988, when voters approved Initiative 97, the Model Toxics Control Act, or MTCA, to clean up hazardous-waste sites.

Since then, the toxics-control money has become a political tool, diverted by Democrats to avoid cutting state programs during the Great Recession and now being used by Republicans hoping to balance a lean budget without raising taxes.

The use of the MTCA toxics-cleanup money stands as an example of how creative budget writing can bail out legislators when money is tight — and how a tax passed for one purpose gets diverted for other uses. This and similar efforts are likely to undergo increased scrutiny as a special legislative session begins Wednesday and lawmakers intensify their efforts to reconcile the two-year spending plan.

May 27-28: Forests and the Economy Symposium and Town Hall

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Updated May 27, 2015

PORTLAND — InvestigateWest and the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication are excited to present a pair of special events on one of the Northwest’s most pressing public policy issues: Forests and the Economy. 

Join us for a symposium on May 27 in Portland, followed by a town hall in Grants Pass on May 28. Both events are free and open to the public, though due to the limited capacity and expected demand for seats, advance tickets will be required for admission.

Portland Program

REGISTER HERE

The Portland symposium will feature leading experts discussing innovative ideas and policy proposals for managing one of the state's most cherished resources.

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Listen: Lee van der Voo on Think Out Loud

On Monday, Lee van der Voo talked with Think Out Loud's Dave Miller about her new report, "How Cash Sent the Portland Home Market Spinning."

Listen to the full interview here:

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Solar Power Expansion Legislation Caught in Political Crossfire

Rooftop solar panels

After nearly two months in legislative limbo, a bill has emerged that would subsidize solar panels for everyone. But it could be dragged down by political struggles, including a failed attempt this week to link it to a bid by utilities to ease their burdens under voter-approved Initiative 937.

I-937 requires utilities to use certain kinds of renewable energy, but has been the target of repeated attempts by utilities to weaken it. They claim that in some cases it’s actually costing them extra money while frustrating the original clean-energy intent of the 2006 initiative.

If passed, the solar bill (HB 1912) would guarantee that purchasers of solar equipment receive a full 10 years of state payments, which could spur new investments in rooftop solar.

How Cash Sent the Portland Home Market Spinning

Julieth Buri waters flowers in front of the Portland house she and her husband, Justin, bought in 2014. Photo: Leah Nash for InvestigateWest

Justin and Julieth Buri were about to lose. Again.

This time it was a pink-colored bungalow, a 1,382-square-foot house on Northeast Fremont belonging to the estate of Veona Monroe, a church devotee and the matriarch of a large Portland family.

It needed work, but they were smitten, if not optimistic. Justin Buri, by day an advocate for tenants, knew well the scarcity of Portland houses. They offered $250,000 — the asking price — and crossed their fingers. This time it took a full day before another buyer outbid them, paying all cash. Seven months later, the house sold again, remodeled, for $483,000.

“It was a nightmare,” Justin Buri said of the couple's house-hunting days. From the time those days began in October 2013 until they ended the following May, the Buris were outbid 16 times for homes, many times by all-cash offers.

“Sometimes we wouldn’t even get beat by that much, but because it was a cash offer, the owner would prefer it,” he said.

So goes the story. Cash is king in red-hot Portland real estate, representing a full one-third of single-family home sales last year. Depending on which urban myth you subscribe to, many first-time home buyers are just out of luck either because the Metro-area urban growth boundary makes housing scarce and pricey, or because Portland is so great, housing is being gobbled up by a flood of New Yorkers and Californians racing here for a slice of nirvana. It’s a post-Portlandia feeding frenzy, right?

Well, no. Not entirely.

A Vision for Transparency Reform in Oregon

In my household there is a running gag. It’s that my future biography — to be written by my husband, who I have been talking at for a minimum of two hours a day for many years — will be called Visions.

Redacted.

It will not be about all of the things I have accomplished. It will be a list, likely numbering in the hundreds of pages, of all the great ideas I’ve had but for a variety of reasons did not see through.

There will be the numerous companies I have started (in my mind, anyway). The ever-evolving landscaping plan always in progress in my yard (and, again, in my mind). There will be the dozens of art projects floating around in closets and our basement. Thousands of unwritten articles — a few with asterisks denoting the unavoidable legal causes of their demise. A book or five. Nonprofits, animal rescues, orchid arrangements, volunteer projects.

I am not a procrastinator. I simply like to start things. Like this column. Like the Redacted app. Like a TED Talk-style story rollout at InvestigateWest’s Oregon launch party Thursday night (6 p.m. in Portland at Ecotrust).

And now I’m going to start something with you people: We are going to try to get this darn bill passed.

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