In the wake of a July fire that burned 80,000 acres of land in Sherman and Wasco counties, state Sen. Bill Hansell is introducing a package of bills that he thinks will improve firefighting efforts on farmland.
The four bills sponsored by the Athena Republican are intended to provide flexibility in fighting wildfires in the area and move a previously unprotected land into the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s jurisdiction.
At its height, the Substation Fire was the largest fire in the United States, burning thousands of acres of wheat in the process.
Hansell attended a debriefing on the fire with Gov. Kate Brown and several other legislators in Sherman County.
He said firefighter after firefighter praised the work done by farmers to assist them in fighting the blaze.
If it wasn’t for the help from local farmers, “we may have had a miniature Paradise, California situation,” Hansell said.
Hansell later returned to Moro for a town hall where farmers and other local residents talked about how the fire affected them and how the response could be improved.
He said giant wildfires over the past few years have made firefighting a hot topic in Salem, but fighting fires on farmland or rangeland doesn’t attract the same sort of attention.
Based on the input he received from the town hall and work he did with the governor’s office, Hansell crafted four bills to address the issue.
Hansell said farmers were worried about assuming liability for property damage or injuries while fighting fires, so he created Senate Bill 290, which grants civil immunity to people fighting fires in good faith.
He added that Oregon already has a similar law on the books for civilians who help people who have been injured in car crashes.
“You may have not made every decision correctly,” he said. “(But) we want to protect that kind of response.”
Hansell said the fire response was also hurt when the fire jumped the Deschutes River and entered land that wasn’t protected by any fire agencies.
Firefighting efforts are hampered when fire agencies are trying to determine who is responsible for extinguishing the fire rather than responding to it quickly, he said.
SB 311 moves 400,000 acres of land in Sherman and Wasco counties into the state fire marshal’s jurisdiction.
The other two bills in Hansell’s package — Senate bills 291 and 292 — allocates more resources to air response for wildfires and gives the governor and fire marshal more flexibility in fighting them.
In a session where legislators will be considering hundreds of bills, Hansell said he can’t predict the bill package’s prospects, but he will make the legislation a priority.
The 2019 legislative session starts Jan. 22.