Wyden Makes the Case for Congress to Get Serious About Fire Prevention as Destructive Wildfires Continue to Rage in Oregon and the West

Senators, my home state of Oregon is on fire. Virtually all of Oregon is choking on smoke. Countless thousands of Oregonians are under evacuation orders. Many are quite literally fleeing for their lives and abandoning their homes as the flames approach.

When I was home this weekend, I saw entire communities burned to ash. Thousands of Oregonians have lost everything – their homes, businesses and lifelong memories. Several people have already perished, and the death toll is expected to rise as others are still missing and unaccounted for.

Amid all that panic and loss, one thing Oregonians did not lose is our spirit of humanity – neighbor helping neighbor, volunteers helping evacuees get food and water and clothing and shelter. We call that the Oregon Way, where everybody steps up when the crisis arrives— and no one cares a whit about anybody’s politics.

I’ve come to the floor today to call on the Senate to match that same standard – to show the same can-do spirit. I want to be able to call this “the day the Senate got serious about Fire Prevention.” 

The day the Senate took a dilapidated and out of date fire policy and replaced it with a modern strategy appropriate for the real on-the-ground conditions we are seeing across the West right now.

The reason I’m saying this is because the way the Senate makes forest policy – often with glacially slow senate procedures – is being totally overwhelmed by these massive infernos destroying our communities and blanketing the West in thick smoke.

These fires are not your grandfather’s forest fires – they are growing bigger and hotter. It’s time the Senate got up to speed.

So, today I offer three policies that can protect many Americans from the destructiveness of the fires experienced today – policies that I believe ought to get bipartisan support and need to pass now.

First, Congress should pass a 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps Act. It’s an opportunity to create thousands of good-wage jobs for young people to help shore up these communities threatened by fires.

In these areas where the infrastructure has burned and communities have been reduced to ash, the first job for the 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps ought to be making sure people are able to vote this fall. I will be working with the United States Postal Service and the Oregon Secretary of State to see how that could work. They should also be a part of the effort to deploy new broadband or restore cell-phone service where the fires have destroyed that infrastructure.

After the fires are out, putting an army of dedicated young people to work on soil stabilization projects this fall to prevent massive flooding in the spring will be key.

Overall, using the 21st century Civilian Conservation Corps to deploy folks into the forests and into our wildland/urban interface neighborhoods to reduce hazardous fuels, preventing catastrophic fires, needs to happen at a grand scale. And it wouldn’t need to trample on national environmental laws. In Oregon alone, there is a ready backlog of more than two million acres that needs to be treated. Without those treatments, a lightning strike or a carelessly dropped match can create an inferno that can leap a river and rip through thousands of acres in the blink of an eye. 

Oregon’s forests, the forests of the West, badly need this care and investment. An updated version of one of the most popular New Deal jobs programs – a 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps – would also be a huge economic boost to rural communities that feel like the government has left them behind to become sacrifice zones. That’s proposal number one.

Second, the Senate must recognize that addressing these fires means a lot more than spending all your money on putting big fires out.

Forest science has shown that wildfires are a part of the natural life cycle of certain parts of the country. If all you do is focus on putting out fires all the time, you disrupt that cycle, and that can lead to bigger fires down the road.

America no longer gets those manageable natural fires. Instead what it gets are huge infernos like the ones happening now, fires that are hot enough to melt cars and sterilize the soil.

That’s why there’s a need for prescribed fires when they can be done safely in the off seasons, the winter months. During those months, when there’s less risk of spread, and you can limit the smoke, the CCC workers, working with the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Oregon Department of Forestry, collaboratives and counties, can clean out the dead undergrowth, and help prevent catastrophic fires in the summer and fall.

Burn a little when it is safe in the off seasons, and you save a lot later on by preventing catastrophe.

I have a bill that I have been developing with the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that will be ready for co-sponsorship later this week. I’m going to be going to all of my colleagues in the West to co-sponsor this common-sense approach to catastrophe-avoidance.

The third proposal brings it all together. The Congress must finally kick its aversion to making long-term budget investments in treatments and fire prevention.

Managing our forests for wildfire resiliency can generate jobs, timber for mills, and improve recreation opportunities. But it requires an investment that many have been simply unwilling to spend.

It may be tempting to cut money for prevention – money that’s all about stopping a fire that could be years and years down the road. But what Oregon is going through right now shows why that’s the wrong way to go, why it’s literally a matter of life and death.

There have been hundreds of billions of dollars earmarked for tax handouts for powerful special interests under this administration. There are outrageous, indefensible subsidies for fossil fuels making our climate crisis even worse.

Even with the boost from my law to end “fire borrowing” with Senator Crapo, the budget for fire preparedness and prevention is woefully inadequate. Certainly more must be done to limit the damage from staggeringly powerful forest fires in a time when our country is getting hotter and drier.

With two million acres of projects in Oregon ready to go – projects that have gone through NEPA and other environmental reviews – it is clear the Forest Service has the technical tools it needs to improve forest health and wildfire resiliency. That two million acre backlog shows the Forest Service lacks the funding and the manpower to get it done.

By allowing that fire prevention backlog to build, the Congress racks up a dangerous debt. The devastation and the smoke in Oregon and across the West today is that debt coming due.

The Congress cannot allow this pattern of negligence and inaction to go on any longer. This debate has been going on for too long, with misguided priorities on both sides. On one side, some in the timber industry skipped past active management to pursue the golden calf of the elimination of environmental laws. On the other side, misguided non-management priorities beat back every attempt to manage our forests based on science.

Today you’re seeing ridiculous new lies and delusions spread online about the causes of these fires.

And just today, visiting California, the president was asked about climate change and fires and he said no problem, he thinks “it’ll start getting cooler.” He blamed “explosive” trees. Spewing that kind of nonsense is cold comfort to the families mourning the loved ones they lost in these fires. Or the thousands of Oregonians who barely made it out before their homes and businesses went up in flames. 

The Senate has an obligation to act – to step up like so many people are doing out in Oregon. Big-hearted neighbors, animal lovers, county employees, city administrators, local moving businesses, teachers, nurses, retirees. You name it – Oregonians are showing up, pitching in. They are bringing food, clothes and towels, mental health services and opportunities for prayer for those that seek it. 

One of the big challenges people are dealing with right now is the need for cell phones and service. My staff and others in the delegation have been working around the clock with industry and the executive branch to get people what they need.

I want to thank the many people who are hard at work maintaining networks for consumers and public safety officials. One problem that’s come up – as networks and equipment burn, there’s a major strain on the resources for people on the front lines fighting these infernos. For example, the repeaters that can amplify a signal and keep our firefighters connected. I’m hearing that this country does not have enough repeaters in stock to begin to address such a crisis as the West is experiencing.

It’s yet another example of what can happen when you ignore infrastructure — when you ignore disaster preparedness. That’s something the country is facing on multiple fronts right now.

So colleagues, I’ll close on this. What I saw in Oregon this weekend really is heart breaking. And right now, thousands of families are mourning unthinkable loss, trying to figure out how to move forward when their homes and the vast majority of their possessions have been reduced to ash. The fires this year are especially bad, but if you open your eyes to the data and talk to the people who’ve lived through these fires, it’s clear this is getting worse and worse. 

The climate crisis is here. Right now. Today.

In case anybody is stuck back way back in yesteryear, it’s no longer a far-off, hypothetical danger for senators to debate in these comfortably air-conditioned buildings. The American West is on fire. Entire neighborhoods, whole communities, are being destroyed. Our air quality has the dubious recognition as being the worst in the world. The climate crisis is happening now – to us, to our kids. America ignores this at our peril.

So I’ve brought forward three proposals today to begin to address one aspect of this crisis. This needs to be the day the Senate gets serious about fire prevention as part of a comprehensive effort to fight the climate crisis. These ideas ought to become law soon, and with broad bipartisan support. I’m talking about policies aimed at protecting our communities and the families who live in them. Protecting jobs. Protecting homes and businesses. These proposals cost money, but it’s a lot cheaper to prevent a fire than it is to rebuild a community out of the ashes. And this can only be the beginning.

So I’m going to keep fighting for these proposals. And then there’s a lot more work to be done. Because the crisis is upon us. It’s happening now, and the Congress needs to prove that it’s up to the challenge.