One may have a false sense of security after the past two months of rain, snow and cool temperatures left the upper elevations of the eastern Cascades in deep snow, with patches below 4,500 feet. While these conditions may put one at ease during wildfire season, the threat of wildfires can emerge quickly.
Central Oregon has the highest fire risk in the state. The region remains under an extreme drought classification. Any vegetation produced by wet weather serves as additional fuel in the early fall. High winds, lightning or human error can quickly turn a dry tinderbox into a raging wildfire.
Central Electric Cooperative and its employees are on high alert, engaged on various fronts: ongoing implementation of the co-op’s wildfire mitigation plan, promoting efficiency in streamlining the federal permitting process to clear vegetation and hazard trees from our power line rights-of-way, and member education.
This year’s priority vegetation management project is a 2-mile stretch of power line in Camp Sherman. This line delivers electricity to permitted tract homes, private property, water systems and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery.
Like previous maintenance projects in federal land rights-of-way, we faced a familiar obstacle: an extensive delay for the USFS to approve the permit. Last October, we submitted the request to ensure its completion before wildfire season commenced. It took seven months to get the green light. Crews finished the three-week job in May.
Since 2014, I have testified before Congress multiple times to promote solutions to improve a cumbersome and timely application process for routine power line maintenance.
While Congress passed meaningful legislative reforms in 2018, only now have the reforms trickled down to the local level for implementation consideration.
Congressman Kurt Schrader (D-OR), a strong ally on this issue, recently visited Bend, where I had the opportunity to highlight that much still needs to be done. I greatly appreciate his listening and commitment to help ensure meaningful reforms take root locally.
There is good news: Federal funding is coming to Central Oregon to aid wildfire mitigation efforts. The USFS recently announced that $41.3 million over three years will pay for thinning and restoration projects to reduce forest fuels in areas near growing communities in Deschutes County. The money comes out of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure and Jobs Act Congress passed earlier this year.
CEC plays a pivotal role in participating in the Oregon Public Utility Commission’s technical working group to provide input and develop solutions to reduce obstacles to allowing utilities to perform ongoing maintenance on federal lands and, thus, reducing wildfire risk.
As we experience another wildfire season, please know CEC is actively doing all it can to protect you and your community. To learn more about our efforts, and what you can do, see this month’s Ruralite or visit www.cec.coop/safety-education/wildfire-preparedness.