On Thursday, U.S. senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden toured sections of the Bootleg Fire burn zone with a retinue of local fire officials, Forest Service personnel, and members of the Klamath Tribes who briefed them on the widespread damage, and on the effectiveness of local forest treatment practices.

The two senators came to Klamath County as part of a statewide tour focused on highlighting the need for infrastructure investment. Both spent time learning about the Bootleg Fire from local officials, information they plan to take to their colleagues in Washington, D.C., as they make the case for increased funding for wildfire mitigation efforts.

Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, Steve Rondeau, lead forester and natural resources director for the Klamath Tribes, Barry Imler, forest supervisor for the Fremont-Winema National Forest, and Leland Hunter, Bly ranger district fire management officer, all accompanied the senators into the forest for the briefing.

The senators were shown treated and non-treated areas as a demonstration of how each reacted to the fire.

“The big factor we saw was that areas that have been treated previously, where they’ve been thinned, where there’s been prescribed burns, behaved completely differently in the fire than in the areas that were not treated,” Sen. Merkley said at the Beatty Community Center, following the tour.

“The fact is, these fires today are not your grandfather’s fires. They’re bigger, they’re hotter, they’re hugely more powerful,” Sen. Wyden said.

Sen. Wyden later pointed out given the recent intensity of western wildfires, senators in Washington, D.C., are beginning to connect wildfires to the changing climate.

“For the first time since I’ve been in public service, senators connect this to the profound consequences of climate change,” he said.

Sen. Merkley said a significant drop in rainfall in the past 30 years, in conjunction with drier, and hotter weather is a primary factor when it comes to fires like the Bootleg.

He said that his colleagues back east are starting to take more notice of western wildfires.

“They weren’t just reading about it,” Merkley said about his colleagues “They were breathing it.”

Merkley was referring to the phenomenon in which wildfire smoke, some of it from the Bootleg, turned the skies above New York City and Washington, D.C. hazy.

Merkley said it will take a coalition of western senators to get the point across that far more needs to be done to mitigate the new reality of western wildfire season.

“That’s enough of a coalition to take the message to the entire body,” Merkley said of his western colleagues. “Plus, they are reading about it, they are hearing about it from us, and they are getting the smoke. So, in combination they are getting the message.”

Wyden remarked on the importance of professionalizing firefighters, which involves training them to both fight fires, but to take on wildfire mitigation practices as part of their duties.

U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill last week, which earmarked $8 billion for fuel reduction and forest thinning as part of wildfire mitigation practices.

With the funding, $2.4 billion would be used for hazardous fuels reduction efforts, $2.1 billion would go to ecosystem restoration activities, and $1 billion would fund grants for at-risk communities to fund wildfire mitigation activities.

The legislation categorizes the nation’s forests as infrastructure, given the multifaceted role — such as entertainment, natural resource production, fishing, and hunting — they play in society, Merkley said.

Merkley said they will also push for even more funding in an upcoming budget reconciliation bill moving through Congress that will be paired with the infrastructure bill.

Gentry, who rode along with the senators as they toured the burn zone, said the Klamath Tribes in partnership with the Forest Service, have treated parts of the forest to restore the land to its natural, historical state.

Historically, Gentry explained, fire was always a part of the natural landscape, and the Klamath Tribes allowed the fires to burn, naturally removing fuels from the forest floors.

“Fire was just here,” Gentry said. “It was on the landscape, it was as common as summer thunder showers. We had these lightning fires that would burn at low intensity, sometimes for thousands of acres and didn’t destroy the trees.”

Gentry pointed out that the towering ponderosa pines that have been on the forest for centuries are more resistant to wildfire than other species, such as lodgepole and white fir, that have spread out on the forest as a result of centuries of fire repression and logging.

Gentry called the local forests “a fire dependent ecosystem.”

The way the Klamath Tribes and the Forest Service have been treating the forest, by removing fuel, and thinning certain species of trees, is meant to restore the land to a healthier state, Gentry added.

“What we saw over the last hour and a half or so, this is a big part of the future. Right here, lessons learned from the Bootleg,” Wyden added after the tour.

“Our collective vision,” Merkley added. “We want to see $20 to $30 billion (in the fund) if possible, because we have so much land across this country that needs to be treated.”

— Reporter Joe Siess can be reached at (541) 885-4481 or jsiess@heraldandnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @jomsiess