3 Lessons on Wildfire Resilience and Recovery From Oregon’s Santiam Basin

In 2020, wildfires devastated communities along the North Santiam River and Little North Santiam River in Oregon, the United States. Five lives were lost in these fires, over 1,500 structures were damaged or destroyed and just under 400,000 acres were burned in three weeks — equivalent to over half of the state of Rhode Island. Northwest Oregon is not the only place facing challenges from wildfires. Decades of housing development, overstocked groups of trees in forests and the impacts of climate change are leading to extreme drought and high temperatures in the western United States. These conditions compound the risk of catastrophic wildfires. The risk of extreme wildfires won’t go away anytime soon: extreme fires are expected to increase by 50% globally by 2050, making investments in wildfire resilience and recovery more important than ever before.

Understanding Wildfires and Their Impacts

Although fire is a natural part of many ecosystems, including in the American West, the increased threat of catastrophic wildfires poses major challenges for communities. Wildfires can increase air pollution and affect air quality, which can be harmful to human health. Due to direct costs like wildfire suppression and rehabilitation, not to mention the potential impacts on local tourism and forest-based sectors, wildfires also impact economies. In addition, wildfires greatly impact the ecological health of affected regions. For example, wildfires can affect water quality and quantity if local water sources are contaminated with smoke, loose soil and other debris. This is especially critical for the western United States, where 65% of the region’s water supply comes from forests. Lastly, wildfires release carbon and hamper the role of forests as a land carbon sink, diminishing the contribution of forests to climate goals. There are two phases of catastrophic wildfire: pre- and post-fire. In the pre-fire phase, communities across the American West are employing wildfire prevention and restoration strategies to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires and mitigate their impacts. Forest restoration is an essential part of wildfire prevention because it can make forest ecosystems healthier and more resilient, such as by creating a less dense ecosystem to minimize the potential of a wildfire spreading. Post-fire, helping communities recover quickly is the priority. Restoration also has an important role to play during this phase, as new trees are needed to support soil stabilization, rebuild rural livelihoods and protect watersheds.

The Santiam Story

The North and South Santiam Rivers begin at Cascade Mountains, then meet at the border of Linn and Marion counties in Northwest Oregon after flowing through miles of forests, farmland and towns. Once the rivers converge, they form the Santiam River and flow into the Willamette River 12 miles later. The Willamette River carves out the Willamette Valley, where 70% of Oregon’s population lives.
A map of the rivers in the Santiams Basin

The North and South Santiam Rivers in Northwest Oregon. Source: Wikipedia

In July 2021, WRI’s Cities4Forests Initiative and Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) supported a field tour led by the North Santiam Watershed Council (NSWC) in the North Santiam in Oregon, which was devastated by the Lionshead and Beachie Creek Fires in 2020. The tour aimed to assess the impact of the wildfires and provide support on innovative funding and financing strategies to advance wildfire resilience and recovery in the region. The field tour revealed the successes and challenges of effective wildfire resilience and recovery strategies in Oregon. In particular, the tour highlighted how a restoration economy — including environmental conservation, restoration and mitigation strategies — can support healthy and resilient forests and thus support pre- and post-fire communities in the state. The tour also revealed how funding, workforce capacity and existing infrastructure constraints make it more difficult for communities to strengthen wildfire resilience and recovery efforts. The federal government and regional actors need to work together to address these challenges and mitigate the impacts of catastrophic wildfires. By undergoing strategic and careful actions to invest in forest restoration, these actors can prevent catastrophic wildfires, minimize damage when wildfires do occur and create valuable benefits like enhanced water quality and quantity, rural economic growth and job creation. Governments and communities can achieve this by employing three strategies:

1. Create Long-Term, Flexible Funding and Financing Sources

In the North Santiam, short-term expenses from wildfires included critical life and safety issues, such as fixing burned road culverts, utility and septic tanks, as well as removing hazardous trees and building debris. The community is also investing in restoration to prevent and mitigate invasive weed species, which requires funding for quality seedlings and experienced planters to properly reforest burned areas. Post-fire expenses such as these can wreak havoc on local community and non-profit budgets. In addition, funding and financing sources available to address post-fire expenses are often small and discrete. These funding and financing limitations require organizations to seek multiple, fragmented funding sources, which can burden staff with extensive grant writing and administrative duties, slowing down wildfire response and hindering on the ground recovery efforts.
A stretch of burned trees alongside a river.

Burned slopes along the Little North Santiam River. Photo credit: Rebecca McCoun.

These challenges cause many regions to struggle with financing pre-fire restoration actions, as well. Areas in the Pacific Northwest face additional barriers, as the region is often viewed as more resilient to catastrophic wildfire and thus has not been the focus of wildfire resilience and recovery efforts.  For example, in the unburned South Santiam, there are limited funding opportunities for fuels reduction treatments, which reduces how much combustible biomass (or “fuel”) is available in a forest. This lack of funding can create a financial burden for public and private landowners who want to support large-scale fire resilience efforts in the basin. Entities like federal agencies, water and energy utilities, cities and local watershed councils need to work together to catalyze long-term, flexible funding and financing opportunities to invest in restoration. This investment would not only help prevent wildfires, but also protect infrastructure and provide funding for economic opportunities like tourism and outdoor recreation. The recent 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which dedicates over $2 billion for healthy, fire-resilient forests, including with a focus on the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), is a much-needed, catalytic investment that will support wildfire resilience and recovery across the United States. Many communities across the western United States are developing innovative finance strategies that can help pool funding from disparate sources at scale. For example, the Forest Resilience Bond (FRB) — a public-private partnership and financial instrument co-developed by Blue Forest Conservation, WRI, and the US Forest Service — was designed to use private capital to pay for the upfront costs of restoration in priority watersheds. In Summit County, Utah, the Summit County Resilience Fund aims to protect the forest from wildfires and create co-benefits for users in the Upper Weber Headwaters. Similar strategies need to be implemented and scaled across the western United States.
A collection of thin trees in front of a few buildings.

Fuel reduction treatments reduce fuel ladders to protect infrastructure in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) in the North Santiam. Photo credit: Lily Colburn.

2. Increase and Support Workforce Capacity

Improved wildfire resilience and recovery in Oregon will also require increasing and supporting workforce capacity — everyone who works to manage and restore land, such as on-the-ground restoration experts and those who work in administrative roles. Current employment gaps must be addressed to meet the demands of the restoration economy specific to wildfire resilience and recovery efforts. Rebecca McCoun, the former Executive Director of NSWC, noted that work opportunities for restoration in North Santiam are often seasonal, inconsistent, poorly compensated, labor-intensive and require technical expertise. For example, there has historically been an over-reliance on short-term labor to support forest restoration initiatives. According to Shannon Richardson, Executive Director of the South Santiam Watershed Council, a limited workforce hampers habitat restoration and fire prevention, as labor resources are directed toward higher-priority fire suppression and recovery efforts. This highlights the tension between pre- and post-fire priorities that can occur as a result of limited resources. The federal government recently advanced some strategies to enhance workforce capacity through the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The legislation dedicates about $3.3 billion to wildland fire issues, including to bolster federal employment opportunities for those who fight wildfires. For example, the Wildland Firefighter occupational series will ensure better compensation for this workforce. An increase in workforce capacity would also enable on-the-ground organizations, such as watershed councils, to increase their engagement with local landowners and community members. This, in turn, would allow organizations to more quickly respond to wildfires.
A section of burned and felled trees in a forest.

Part of a vast burned area in the Santiam basin. Photo credit: Rebecca McCoun.

3. Invest in Restoration Infrastructure

Kathleen Guillozet, Senior Director of the Watershed Program at BEF, notes that communities are becoming increasingly interested in tree planting and reforestation initiatives to address wildfire challenges. The latest research supports this interest: a recent WRI report calls for annual federal investments of $445 million to restore trees on federal lands, $4.3 billion to restore trees on non-federal lands and $1.5 billion to manage wildfire risks. However, these numbers do not reflect the investments necessary across all phases of tree planting, known as the reforestation pipeline, such as the costs to procure seeds or maintain trees after planting. Even with these investments, infrastructure such as nurseries, seed storage facilities and tree processing facilities has declined in recent decades. Furthermore, the scale and number of wildfires is putting additional pressure on the restoration economy and contributing to a demand for tree seedlings that is far greater than what is currently in production. In the North Santiam, the unexpected 2020 wildfires put unprecedented stress on restoration infrastructure. For example, procuring seedlings for reforestation can be a multi-year process due to high demand and supply chain challenges, which can significantly slow down restoration efforts. Many organizations also do not have the upfront funding to order enough seedlings for restoration at the necessary scale. The resulting delays in replanting can allow invasive species to take root, threaten water quality and slow economic revitalization. Addressing these supply chain issues is fundamental to implementing widespread restoration projects across the country, including for wildfire resilience and recovery, and will also be critical to increase restoration infrastructure to meet current demands. Building a more robust supply chain to support pre- and post-fire resilience and recovery efforts can be achieved through investment in workforce development and research on nurseries that address the impacts of climate change on the supply of seeds. Fortunately, the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes $2.2 billion for forest restoration and the development of nursery infrastructure — a much-needed investment in a vital supply chain. Finally, trees must be planted in a way that promotes long-term growth in the face of climate change to ensure they survive.
A thin tree with red leaves surrounded by felled trees.

Many trees planted following the wildfires in the North Santiam did not survive due to unprecedented, extreme heat and drought in the summer of 2021. Photo credit: Lily Colburn.

Protecting Communities Against Wildfires in the Santiams and Beyond

The challenges facing the North and South Santiam are indicative of the experience of many Western United States communities working to advance fire resilience and recovery efforts. As the number and severity of wildfires continues to grow, both in the region and globally, many communities are preparing for the possibility of a catastrophic wildfire. Fortunately, the experiences of the Santiams can serve as a guide on how to fortify communities against the potential of future wildfires. To support these efforts, WRI and BEF are working with the United States Forest Service and the North and South Santiam Watershed Councils to fund and finance large-scale restoration in the basins, including by securing long-term funding commitments from beneficiaries of healthy forests and watersheds, increasing staffing and workforce capacity, and bolstering resilience for local and downstream communities. These strategies will not only advance recovery from past fires, but support resilience to protect people, communities and economies from the threats of future fires.