Guest Opinion: Prevent wildfire damage before it starts with ‘Build Back Better’ bill

Congress has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to act swiftly and comprehensively.

Dr. Catherine Kordesch and Dr. David HarrisonGuest Opinion | | October 29th, 2021

Wildfire smoke lingers in the hills of South Salem on Friday, Sept. 17th, 2021. Capi Lynn / Statesman Journal

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Benjamin Franklin noted. He was talking about avoiding fires — equally relevant now — but it is also a fundamental premise for human health.

Whether caring for our planet or our bodies, it is far better and cheaper to invest in preventing damage than it is to fix it later.

Congress has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to act swiftly and comprehensively. By passing infrastructure and “Build Back Better” legislation, they would make historic investments now to avoid tragic and expensive consequences of major environmental crises that wreak havoc for Oregonians. Both bills contain transformative policies for addressing climate change, making our communities more resilient and accelerating a transition to clean energy while creating good jobs.

Hotter and drier summers in Oregon, just like much of the West, have brought an increase in the frequency and severity of wildfires. We saw this with the Bootleg Fire this summer, and the town of Detroit is still healing from catastrophic damage from last year.

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We pay a high price to address these crises while they are occurring. Oregon has spent an estimated $127 million for suppressing wildfires this year alone. Given the clear science about climate change, costs to respond to disasters like this will rise. The cost of inaction goes up the longer we wait.

We need urgent and proactive investments now. 

Smart policies and funding for infrastructure are one way to help. Just as our crumbling roads and bridges need urgent attention, so do our natural resources, especially with the growth predicted for our region. The natural resources of Oregon — our lands, waters and climate — are the most fundamental infrastructure we have. In the Willamette Valley, we know our quality of life and our way of life depend on the right temperature, water and air quality.

Fortunately, our congressional leaders understand this well. In the infrastructure bill before Congress, they’ve included significant investments that leverage the power of nature to clean our water, help protect from floods and reduce wildfire risk, for example.

Another way to help is addressing the cause of climate change. The budget legislation often referred to as the “Build Back Better Act” could take on that challenge in a bigger way than we’ve ever seen before. By reducing greenhouse gas emissions through incentives and programs to encourage a transition to clean energy, this legislation would help cure the problem rather than treat its symptoms.

This will take money, of course. But as we tell our patients, preventive care is better than reactive care. We know that delaying care ultimately increases the cost of treatment, as the problems usually become more complex and difficult over time.

Congress has the opportunity now to take Franklin’s advice to heart and follow its lesson that has held true for centuries. We encourage Oregon’s representatives to support infrastructure and budget legislation as a prescription for the environmental and health crises we face, and to do it now before we face more consequences and higher costs.

Catherine Kordesch is a retired pediatrician based in Eugene. David Harrison is a radiologist based in Salem. Both serve on the board of trustees of The Nature Conservancy in Oregon. You may reach them at