Local Agencies Receiving State Grant Money to Fight Wildfires

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By Lynne Terry/Oregon Capital Chronicle

As Oregon approaches this year’s wildfire season, state officials are distributing $6 million in grants to help local fire agencies bolster their resources.

The Oregon State Fire Marshal, which announced the grants, said that 191 agencies across the state received up to $35,000. That’s about two-thirds of the 306 fire agencies in Oregon.

Among those receiving grant money include the Echo Rural Fire Protection District, the Heppner Fire Department, the Irrigon Rural Fire Protection District, the Milton-Freewater Rural Fire District, Pendleton Fire & Ambulance, the Pilot Rock Rural Fire Protection District and the Umatilla Rural Fire Protection District.

All of the agencies were eligible to apply for a grant, but most of the recipients are in rural or coastal areas, from Ontario to Oakridge and Christmas Valley to Seaside. The departments in the state’s biggest cities, including Portland, Salem, Eugene, Medford and Bend, are not on the list, mainly because the grant’s purpose is to help smaller jurisdictions – those whose annual property tax income does not exceed $2 million – that often rely on volunteers, according to John Hendricks, a spokesman for the fire marshal.

The grants are designed to help smaller agencies, such as the Fossil and Heppner fire departments, staff up with firefighters to be able to mobilize quickly.

Hendricks said in an email that the grants often allow agencies to hire two to three extra firefighters.

“Every agency is different, so their request may be different,” Hendricks said. “Some agencies pay current volunteers to take a shift, others bring on seasonal staff. It really depends.”

Many recipients got the maximum, though a few were given much less. The smallest grant – $2,698 – went to Baker Rural Fire Protection District. Myrtle Creek Fire Department got $9,160, while Union Emergency Services received $9,463 and Corbett Fire District 24 received $12,315.

This is the third year in a row that the fire marshall has distributed money through the Wildfire Season Staffing Grant program, according to a news release. It said the grants last year – also $6 million  – allowed agencies to add more than 1,500 firefighters.

“These added resources allowed agencies to attack fires and keep them small and away from communities and added capacity to respond to other calls, ultimately saving lives,” the release said.

That help enabled the Cornelius Fire Department in the Portland area, for example, to dispatch two units to the scene of a brush fire last year within minutes. They quickly put it out, preventing the spread to nearby buildings.

In Jefferson County in central Oregon, funding helped the local fire department hire wildland firefighters who contained a high-risk brush fire last August to 1 acre, according to a report about last year’s grants. That fire had the potential to become big in a high-risk area, the fire chief said.

And in Sublimity in Marion County, the grant helped the local fire district add staff at the busiest time of the year, which it previously couldn’t do, the release said.

“This resulted in quicker responses with adequate staffing for not only our district, but our neighboring agencies,” Sublimity Fire District Chief Alan Hume said in the release. “Last year we had several fires in our area with the potential to develop into larger, extended duration fires. We were able, as (a) region, to keep those fires smaller.”

The grant is part of an initiative by the State Fire Marshal’s office, the Response Ready Oregon initiative, that’s designed to help modernize systems and technology, create mutual aid plans, hire coordinators and more. But that program lacks sustained funding, the release said.

The Oregon Legislature allocated $220 million for wildfires in 2021, but the Oregon Department of Forestry and State Fire Marshal’s Office received less than $90 million during the budget cycle that began last July and ends in mid-2025. Lawmakers had hoped this session to fill gaps in wildfire funding, with three bills to address landowner wildfire protection fees, home hardening, wildfire prevention and response and survivor compensation. But only one – on compensation – passed.

That prompted Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland and the author of one proposal to say legislators were “stumbling into the future” on wildfire funding.

This story first appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

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