FILE — Oregon fire tree line

A cluster of Oregon trees in eastern Marion County overlook soil blackened by the state's 2020 Labor Day wildfires which ravaged around a million acres statewide.

(The Center Square) – More than seven out of 10 Oregonians are willing to pay more in taxes to keep local wildfires at bay as the state braces for another hot fire season, a recent poll found.

From September through October, Oregon saw 21 major wildfires rip through 1.2 million acres, burning 4,000 homes and killing at least nine people. Their damage stands at $1.15 billion, according to the state's Wildfire Recovery Council. Their toll to Oregon's most disadvantaged communities is far greater.

Four towns—Talent, Phoenix, Gates, and Detroit—were all but destroyed in the blazes, taking some 1,800 mobile home units with them.

In January, Gov. Kate Brown's office reported around 1,000 survivors were holed up in hotel rooms while another 178 were living in federally-provided trailers. State officials expect Oregon could qualify for up to $365.2 million in federal assistance, but it's clear to state lawmakers that more money is needed for the wildfire seasons to come. 

Brown's proposed two-year budget sets aside around $189.5 million for wildfire recovery efforts and $170 million of lottery bonds for rebuilding more affordable housing, infrastructure, and community development.

One poll conducted by FM3 Research finds most Oregonians would be willing to pull even more money out of their own pockets to fight wildfires. The February survey was commissioned by four nonprofit groups—1000 Friends of Oregon, Resources Legacy Fund, Sustainable Northwest, and the Nature Conservancy.

Pollsters interviewed 845 likely Oregon voters split across urban, rural, and party lines about whether they would pay a theoretical $10 to $50 annual fee on their homeowner's insurance policy to fund the state's wildfire readiness.

About 73% of respondents said they would be willing to pay the $10 rate, while 55% of respondents were okay with the $50 rate. Across Oregon's 1.6 million households, that mean between $11.68 million and $44 million for state coffers.

Among respondents' chief concerns about wildfires, pollsters found, was loss of homes, loss of life, and loss of natural habitats. Around 56% of respondents described wildfires' affect on their lives as "moderate" to "a great deal." 

Dylan Kruse, government affairs director at Sustainable Northwest, said he's not surprised so many Oregonians care so much about the state's forests.

"We saw strong numbers there that people understand this issue," Kruse said. "They want to do something about it, they don't want to wait any longer, and they're willing to pay for it. The fact that they're willing to pay up to $50 per year is not an insignificant amount for the state."

Those numbers matter even more when Oregonians disagree over what's driving worse wildfire seasons. State authorities attribute last season's wildfires to dry weather, lighting strikes, and at least one case of arson. On the left, the culprit is manmade climate change. On the right, it's decades of poor forest management. 

For Joe Moll, executive director of Oregon's McKenzie River Trust, the two are inseparable. The real dilemma, Moll said, is how society has chosen to live with nature, which can mean planning forests around roadways, not wildfires.

"People are concerned about where trees are cut along the roadway, but the issue really isn't about the trees," Moll said. "The issue is where we've built the roadways. We choose to live in such a way that allows for tremendous amounts of travel and freedom. All of these wonderful things contribute to climate change."

If forecasts prove true, Oregon could have another long, hot wildfire season in store this year. Data from the U.S. Drought Monitor show the state is seeing exceptionally dry weather, one which Brown declared an emergency in Klamath County this month. The USDA also shows snowpack in the Cascade Mountains from Mount Hood to Diamond Peak is 88% of average which pose great risk to Northern Oregon reservoirs.

Oregon State University's fifth annual climate assessment published earlier this year found Oregon's 90 degree weather days have stretched by as much as three weeks to the south and eight days in Portland since 1940. This weekend, Oregonians in the Willamette Valley will see temperatures reach the high 70s two months before the first day of summer.

A number of bills in the Oregon Legislature addressing all of the above are expected to work their way to Brown's desk. On Friday, the House passed a host of bills exempting residential wildfire rebuilding from construction taxes and allowing wildfire survivors to prorate their property taxes.

Moll says the future of Oregon's forest health depends on resolving the tug of war over timber rights in the state, which will take a great deal of solidarity to end.

"One of the things we face is the patchwork of disjointed ownership associated with private and public lands," Moll said. "I think what fires do is show you that those boundaries really mean nothing. It's really going to demand that we come together in good faith on behalf of the land and on behalf of the communities."