Rep. Greg Walden answers questions from Peggy Frye, manager of The Jewel in downtown Sisters, during his visit to Sisters last Sunday. photo by Sue Stafford
Rep. Greg Walden answers questions from Peggy Frye, manager of The Jewel in downtown Sisters, during his visit to Sisters last Sunday.

photo by Sue Stafford

Oregon Congressman Greg Walden (R-Hood River) was in Sisters on Sunday afternoon to tour the Milli Fire with Forest Service personnel and to meet with representatives of Sisters businesses and the City of Sisters to discuss the economic impact of the fire on the business community.

The meeting was arranged by former interim City Manager Rick Allen at the request of Walden's office.

Walden reported that this has been a $2 billion fire year, with 49,000 fires nationally. As part of the bill for funding hurricane relief, $575.6 million was included for fire suppression, a win for the West.

John Allen, forest supervisor for the Deschutes National Forest, told Walden that in the past three weeks, two million board feet of hazard trees have been removed from the Milli Fire site along Highway 242. There are seven or eight companies eager to buy the timber, which includes large ponderosa pines.

At this time, the Forest Service can legally remove hazard trees from fire areas along highways immediately following the fire's containment. However, removal of any of the rest of the burned timber requires time-consuming environmental assessments, which can take several years if there are appeals, leaving the timber to degrade and become salvageable only for firewood.

Because the Forest Service could conduct rapid post-fire recovery efforts along 242, they were able to complete work prior to the onset of winter. Had that not occurred, 242 would not have opened to the public next spring.

Walden would like to see legislation passed to change the wilderness regulations. Due to environmental protection regulations, any burned timber in the wilderness cannot be removed, leaving dead trees to conceivably fuel future fires.

Chris Wilder of Sisters Log Furniture, and president of the Chamber of Commerce Board, said, "There is value in the timber burned in the wilderness," but not if it can't be harvested.

The general consensus around the table Sunday afternoon was more "commonsense" regulations could help reduce fire danger from unharvested fuels by allowing the cutting of fire-damaged timber in both wilderness and non-wilderness areas in a more timely fashion, before the timber losses its value as marketable lumber.

Walden reported there is a proposed bill in the House that would reduce the amount of time it takes for the Forest Service to harvest fire-damaged timber, and it doesn't eliminate environmental safeguards.

When asked if he supports the Senate bill introduced by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden (D) and four other western senators, called the Wildfire Mitigation Assistance Act, he responded, "Yes." The act would provide resources to assist communities recovering from damaging wildfires.

However, Walden contended, "You can't buy your way out."

He believes there need to be changes to the policies governing the management of the nation's forests, calling for more active thinning in order to reduce fuel loads that feed the fires in the first place.

He pointed out that in Eastern Oregon, healthy ponderosa forests should have 20 trees per acre, but due to fire suppression and reduction in logging, there are now 1,000 ponderosas per acre.

On the tour of the Milli Fire, Walden said he was told by Forest Service personnel, "If I could just do what I am trained to do," such as increased post-fire salvage, the risk of catastrophic forest fires could be reduced.

Fifty percent of the entire Forest Service budget is for fire suppression, and another 46-48 percent has to cover all other programs of the Forest Service, including preventive measures.

Roger White, owner of the Camp Sherman Store, queried Walden on the cost of preventive maintenance of the forest versus the cost to fight a fire. Walden said it depends on the land but generally it cost $3,000 an acre to thin and four to five times that amount to fight a fire.

Besides the obvious public safety concerns and value of the property at risk that go into prioritizing fires for asset allocation, Walden would like to see additional considerations such as health impacts on surrounding communities from carbon emissions and particulates in the air, and damage to local watersheds impacting drinking and irrigation water.

Walden told the attendees the CDC and EPA are doing a study on the difference between smoke from forest fires and smoke from prescribed burns. Prescribed burns can be scheduled when wind and air conditions are favorable for reducing the impact of the smoke. Forest fire smoke tends to be denser and, of course, can't be scheduled for favorable weather conditions.

When logging was a big part of our economy, fuels reduction resulted from tree removal. If a fire did start, the Forest Service would recruit the loggers already in the forest to jump on the fire and put it out before it could spread to thousands of acres, according to Walden.

The economic impact of the fire on local businesses was similar across the board. Fewer tourists meant less business, reduced income, cancelled reservations, employee layoffs, and instituting winter hours a month early in some cases.

"Perfect storm" was used to describe the combination of events that have hit the Sisters business community in the pocketbook. The heavy winter snow kept tourists away. The extreme hype regarding expected crowds for the solar eclipse resulted in low tourist numbers.

The Milli Fire and others in the area, with their dense smoke, and misleading media information outside the area, led to disappointing numbers for Labor Day weekend. The ODOT sign near Eugene indicating that the road to Sisters was closed didn't clarify it was 242 that was closed and not 126. The fire and smoke dragged on, requiring cancellation of the Sisters Folk Festival in September.

Managing director of Sisters Folk Festival, Ann Richardson, reported that the Festival would be all right financially.

"We were disappointed to have to cancel, but I think it meant a lot more to the community (in terms of impact) than it did to us," she said.

She said that an economic impact study conducted several years ago indicated the SFF brought $1.2 million into the local economy over four days.

"For us it was sad, but the impact is greater and broader than just one event," she added.

Another topic on which there was general agreement was that a lack of available resources at the outbreak of the Milli Fire allowed it to grow quickly in size. Walden thinks it would be beneficial for the Forest Service to have priority leasing agreements for expensive resources necessary to fight forest fires, like helicopters and air tankers. Rather than spending millions of dollars to purchase equipment, which may sit unused in low fire years, put the money into leasing equipment when it is

needed.

Forest fires are a part of life in Central Oregon. Business owners told Walden they would like to see a more practical approach to forest management and post-fire salvage.