Wildfires, wild horses among top concerns Utah’s ag community brought to Interior chief

SALT LAKE CITY — The looming threat of catastrophic wildfires, the overpopulation of wild horses and rangeland conditions for livestock were among the top concerns the agricultural community aired with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt during a Friday roundtable discussion in Utah.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said the conversation — and complaints — did not go unheeded by Bernhardt, who grew up in Colorado and was visiting Utah for a number of events.

“He’s very familiar with Western issues,” Lee said. “These are controversial and difficult issues. … He has not lost sight of Westerners.”

Bernhardt, in a telephone interview after the roundtable, said one of the chief complaints raised by livestock producers is the need for better management of rangeland to prevent wildfires or degradation from wild horses.

“The reality is they would like to see more active management of our rangeland, which would minimize devastating wildfires, which is exactly what the president is proposing and doing,” he said.

The Interior Department, in fact, is on the cusp of making significant management changes for how some fuels are addressed, he said.

“We are about to finalize a (new rule) for rapid treatment related to pinion juniper that will be very significant for the state of Utah,” he said.

That rule would allow the agency to do more vegetation treatments on a yearly basis, he added.

Lee said the action is critical given the impacts of catastrophic wildfires to property, life and livestock producers who have seen the charred bodies of the animals they care for.

“It really is a heart-breaking issue and a deep concern to everyone,” he said, pointing a finger at federal policies he says have fostered neglect of landscapes over the years.

“It ends up being an environmental disaster on top of everything else.”

Brian Steed, director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, attended Friday’s roundtable on agricultural issues and said it was a fruitful discussion, especially when it came to rangeland management, wild horses and grazing.

“We have been working together with the wildlife community and agricultural producers over the years and that is the benefit of reducing catastrophic wildfire through these partnerships,” he said.

Noting that wildfires don’t respect geopolitical boundaries, Steed said it is critical that the state and federal government play well together.

“We have a pretty good working relationship with our federal partners in the BLM trying to identify those areas most likely to burn,” he said.

The number of wild horses in Utah — far beyond the established federal limit — was raised as a concern from both the grazing community and Steed’s agency, which has oversight of wildlife such as deer and antelope.

“Wild horses are always something we are concerned about,” he said.

Within the Interior Department, the Bureau of Land Management has oversight of wild horse and burro populations in Western states.

Greg Sheehan, director of the Utah BLM, said the agency has been successful this year at removing a number of wild horses in the state,

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Inmate transfers for wildfires causing overcrowding and delays in medication, meals, bathroom access, families say

The state mismanaged its evacuation of 3,439 inmates who were moved in the last week from four minimum- and medium-security prisons in the Willamette Valley to prisons in Salem and Madras due to wildfire smoke, their attorneys said Monday.

Inmates with different security levels were mixed, leading to a rash of fights, the lawyers said. Guards were unprepared and used pepper spray to respond to rioting, adding the toxic chemical to prisons already filled with smoke from nearby fires, they said.

Inmates also didn’t get their medication on time, they said, and no meals were served for nearly 24 hours for women prisoners transferred out of Coffee Creek Correctional Institution.

Some inmates were forced to sleep on the floor, with little social distancing and increased risk of the coronavirus, according to family members.

Women transported in the middle of the night from Coffee Creek Correctional Institution sat on buses for hours, forcing them to urinate in their pants without access to bathrooms.

“Women were peeing in cups and throwing tampons and feces out the buses,” said Rod Richardson, whose wife Tammy Saylor was among those moved from the women’s prison in Wilsonville to Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras. Once at Deer Ridge, she had to sleep on metal bed springs for hours before mattresses arrived, he said.

A group of attorneys representing inmates urged Gov. Kate Brown to release those who are medically vulnerable and are six months away from release.

“It appears as if there wasn’t a plan for this,” said attorney Tara Herivel, who described the Oregon Department of Corrections actions as extremely haphazard.

More than 180 habeas corpus court cases are pending across the state by inmates already arguing that the prison conditions are unsafe, increasing their risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Lawyers are expected to incorporate the latest prison evacuations and changes into those cases, pointing to the altered, deteriorating conditions as further examples of alleged “deliberate indifference” to inmates’ medical conditions and safety, Herivel said.

The Corrections Department “has not only abused and mistreated our clients and other Oregonians in prison, they have exposed them to a mass COVID contraction environment,” she wrote to state officials.

Jennifer Black, spokeswoman for the Corrections Department, said the agency recognizes that “life at some of our institutions is not ideal for those who live and work at them” because of the wildfire emergency.

“However, life and safety are our first priority and we will return to normal operations as soon as conditions allow.”

Inmates from the Oregon State Correctional Institution, the Santiam Correctional Institution and Mill Creek Correctional, which are all in Salem and sit closest to the mouth of the Santiam Canyon, were moved to the Oregon State Penitentiary, also in Salem, last week. The inmates from Mill Creek and Santiam are now back at those prisons, according to Black.

The Corrections Department has extensive emergency preparedness plans that cover evacuations, mainly for a potential Cascadia earthquake, Black said. The state faced “unique circumstances” it couldn’t

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Now It’s Not Safe at Home Either. Wildfires Bring Ashen Air Into the House.

SAN FRANCISCO — The new thing we do here when we get up in the morning, even before the tooth brushing and the coffee making, is to look at the sky. Then we look at the internet to see if our eyes deceive.

“Purple again,” I said to my wife this morning. Not the sky. That was the color of soot, like a child had taken dirty fingers and rubbed them all over the horizon. Purple is the color on the air quality chart. It means that we’ve hit “very unhealthy,” our air filled with microscopic particles that, speaking of children, are dangerous for them to breathe into their soft pink lungs. And not so great for those of us who have a few miles on our lungs already.

During the coronavirus pandemic, our last refuge had been to stay inside the house, but when things go this purple this persistently, the trouble seeps inside. Thanks to rampant wildfires, our at-home air filter has started telling us that things have turned unhealthy in our home — the bad air is managing to sneak in, even through closed windows and doors.

So we’ve taken to passing our one air purifier from room to room so our two children can do SOTG (school on the go) without getting SOOT (soot in the bloodstream). We clean each room, then rotate the device, and I trail to maintain the obnoxious optimism that is my hallmark and fatherly duty. But you can tell things are bad when you start reaching for comparisons, like: Well, we could be in Flanders in 1918. (Maybe that rose tint to my glasses is actually ash.)

In actuality, I don’t have to reach back to Belgium during World War I to know things could be worse. We could be in the Portland suburbs or lots of other places in the Pacific Northwest, circa right now. There, the ash in the sky comes with rampant blazes that are creating actual refugees, meaning people who are running from death with whatever they can carry.

So yes, we are privileged: roof over the head, freezer full of meat and crisper stocked with vegetables. My wife and I remain employed and no one we are close to has died from that terrible virus.

That said, I have had a migraine three days running from the poor air (or self-pity, or both). My wife is a neurologist who specializes in treating migraines, and she says that it’s supposed to help when you sit in darkness. But I can tell you that on Wednesday morning — when we woke up and looked at the sky and it was the orange-black of Halloween — the all-day darkness did little to calm the headache.

I’m a science reporter, and it’s hard not to see what’s happening now as a science story, with Covid-19 taking advantage of population density and other modern factors to hop and skip across the globe and from cough to nose and lung to lung,

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White House approves emergency funding to Oregon for wildfires, Rep. DeFazio says

The federal government will help cover some of the emergency costs of Oregon’s wildfires, a U.S. lawmaker from Oregon confirmed.

The White House approval of Oregon’s emergency declaration request comes several days after Gov. Kate Brown declared a statewide emergency for wildfires that have caused massive destruction around the state.

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Springfield, said in a news release the Federal Emergency Management Agency will cover assistance for temporary housing for those displaced by the fire, as well as additional firefighting resources.

Also on Thursday night, FEMA announced that it had authorized the use of federal funds specifically to help with fighting the fires in Clackamas County Complex Fire. In addition to reimbursement for fighting the fires, more than $629,000 in mitigation assistance will be available to Oregon.

“Oregon is facing an unprecedented crisis, and this decision to declare an emergency comes not a moment too soon,” DeFazio said. “With tens of thousands of Oregonians — who are already dealing with public health concerns and economic uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic — forced to evacuate their homes, it’s imperative that the state has the resources it needs to provide safe temporary housing for all who need it.”

A spokesperson for DeFazio’s office noted that the declaration does not allot a certain dollar amount to the disasters, but that FEMA will retroactively help cover the economic toll of the disaster. She said she does not know how much of the damage FEMA will cover.—Jayati Ramakrishnan; 503-221-4320; [email protected]; @JRamakrishnanOR

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