After Years of Political Gridlock, Oregon’s Fire Disaster Brings ‘New Reality’ – The New York Times

After Years of Political Gridlock, Oregon’s Fire Disaster Brings ‘New Reality’ – The New York Times

“How long will it last? I don’t know,” Mr. Frederick said. “I hope it lasts longer than it has in the past.”

But State Senator Herman Baertschiger Jr., who was the Republican minority leader leading the walkout over the cap-and-trade plan, worried that groups ranging from logging proponents on the right to environmentalists on the left might dig in during a time of intense political polarization around the country.

Given the ferociousness of the fires and the power of the warm, dry winds that propelled them through the towering Douglas firs of the western Cascades, the measures that Ms. Brown supported this year would have had little chance to make a substantial difference. But policymakers emphasize that adjusting to the reality of a warming climate is a long game — as are the strategies for combating wildfire.

Fires have always been a part of the region’s landscape, and long before European settlers arrived, Native Americans embraced controlled burning as a strategy to manage the lands. While the types of blazes that Oregon saw this month — summer flames stoked by dry winds from the east — are not common, they are also not unheard-of in the Northwest’s more recent history, going back to the deadly Yacolt Burn in 1902.

The tensions over how to properly manage the state’s timberlands have also been around since the state’s inception, when settlers in Portland were felling so many trees that the city got the nickname Stumptown.

The often competing interests between economic growth and environmental stewardship have been locked for decades in disagreements, including a battle over the spotted owl, which faced extinction in the 1980s as the industry cut through ancient forests along the coast. That dispute, which included lawsuits and legislation that drove a lasting decline in the timber industry, escalated to the point that President Bill Clinton had to intervene to strike a solution that became the Northwest Forest Plan.

But some areas preserved for wildlife and recreation have sprouted robust, combustible trees and underbrush, and the risk of wildfires has continued to grow. Since the environmental compromises of the early 1990s, the wildland-urban interface where communities are most at risk of wildfire in Oregon has seen the number of homes grow by about 40 percent. Population growth there and elsewhere has also raised the prospect of more human-caused fires.

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