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Wyden and other lawmakers get briefed on regional wildfires

Firefighters in ashy area.
Firefighters assigned to the Bedrock Fire help each other navigate the steep and ash-covered terrain on the fire's northern perimeter.

With wildfire season getting longer, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden is advocating not only for increased pay for firefighters, but also as a year-round salary.

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden talks to reporters after a briefing with forest officials.
Brian Bull
U.S. Senator Ron Wyden talks to reporters after a briefing with forest officials.

After a briefing on the Lookout, Bedrock, and Salmon fires with forest officials Monday in Springfield, Wyden suggested to reporters that he’ll look into firefighter salaries when he’s back on Capitol Hill.

“You’ve heard us talk about it as a temporary bump,” said Wyden. “Let me add to that today: I’ve seen this summer who urgent it is to make these firefighters professional, available, year-round. It can’t just be for a few months in the hot weather season. And that means it’s going to cost something, but I’ll tell you, we can’t afford not to do it.”

A short-term pay increase for more than 16,000 federal wildfire workers is set to expire at the end of September.

A burning economic toll 

With wildfires growing more intense and frequent, officials say Oregon stands to take an economic hit as well as an environmental one.

Wildfires can not only burn down communities and destroy infrastructure, they can also close off trails, recreational sites, and scare off tourists.

Lane County Commissioner Heather Buch said this has been very true for the McKenzie River Corridor, where summers have typically brought scores of outdoor enthusiasts and tourists. But incidents like the Lookout Fire have affected that usual turnout.

Car driving through burnt area.
Brian Bull
A vehicle drives through the McKenzie River Corridor on Oct. 28, 2020. The Holiday Farm Fire had swept through the previous month, burning over 173,000 acres. Much of the destroyed area included areas popular with hikers and sightseers.

“When we have to close large areas of recreation, this closes some tourism opportunities,” Buch told KLCC. “And there are employees that live up there, we want them to stay up there, we want the McKenzie to grow, rebuild, and recover. We need that economic vitality.”

And no one wants a repeat of the 2020 Labor Day Fires, considered the worst wildfire season on record for Oregon. A reportby the Oregon Forest Resources Institute shows nearly $6 billion in economic impact from those fires.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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