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Complaints mount, so Oregon zaps wildfire risk map

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A view of North Corvallis blanketed in wildfire smoke on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

The Oregon Department of Forestry recalled the use of its wildfire risk map on Thursday, Aug. 4 after public criticism that the online tool is causing home insurance rates to increase or not be available at all.

The Department of Forestry removed the current iteration of the wildfire risk map from its online Oregon Explorer tool and withdrew notices to property owners in extreme and high-risk classifications that required some to make changes and improvements on buildings.

“We will immediately begin working with Oregon State University on some refinements to improve the accuracy of risk classification assignments based on what we’ve heard from property owners thus far,” Cal Mukomoto, the director of the Oregon Department of Forestry, said in a news release.

Climate change and decades of fuels built up in forests are making wildfires burn hotter and last longer in Oregon. The 2020 Labor Day fires that ravaged large parts of the state have emboldened state agencies to increase fuel treatments and raise awareness among homeowners to increase their defensible space.

The Department of Forestry was assigned to develop and maintain the statewide wildfire risk map following the 2021 passage of Senate Bill 762. Oregon State University helped in developing the mapping tool.

Passage of the bill allowed the Department of Forestry to make investments in fire-adapted communities, wildfire response and the development of wildfire resilient landscapes — 11 state agencies were tasked with developing various components of the bill.

Map's purpose

The purpose of the map is to identify the risk of a wildfire occurring in a given area to help determine where resources are needed most to protect lives and property, Mukumoto said.

The agency was also tasked with defining the wildland-urban interface where development meets combustible vegetation. It assigned a risk classification at the property ownership level for all 1.8 million tax lots across the state. Each parcel was placed into one of five categories of wildfire risk: none, low, moderate, high or extreme.

Property owners in the high or extreme risk categories were suddenly faced with new regulations, including special building codes and fire-safe landscaping. Tonkon Torp LLP, a Portland-based law firm that reviewed the legislation, said the regulations impacted around 120,000 tax lots statewide, including 80,000 structures.

The Senate bill tasked other state agencies with developing new codes for defensible space and home hardening to increase resiliency in the event of a wildfire.

David Gilmore, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Bain in Bend, said the bill has made the challenge of buying a home even more difficult than it was, especially in high-risk areas. He had a client recently who was buying a home in Sisters and was initially denied insurance coverage. Gilmore later found a broker in Redmond that would insure the home.

“There’s definitely more talk about insurance now. This is one more potential hurdle homebuyers and sellers need to be aware of,” Gilmore said. “The map doesn’t necessarily take into account if a neighborhood is a Firewise neighborhood or not.”

Firewise USA is a national program that encourages neighbors to work together and take action to prevent damage from wildfires.

Negative feedback

George Endicott, the mayor of Redmond, said the land that he owns was rated high risk for fire even though he had taken steps to mitigate risk, including removing trees and vegetation and replacing the siding on his house.

He was one of the many hundreds of Oregonians to file an appeal. His constituents were similarly unimpressed — Endicott has only heard negative feedback about the map from people in Redmond.

“I realize the Legislature included a strict timeline, but that created a situation where the state agencies could not fully analyze the changes made to areas such as Central Oregon,” Endicott said. “Pulling the map was a good idea.”

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, agrees.

“The growing outrage over high-risk classifications of primarily rural property threatens to overwhelm the Oregon Department of Forestry with thousands of appeals that the agency will be unable to handle,” the Senate minority leader said in a statement Thursday on behalf of Senate Republicans. “Ultimately, we need better management of our public forests at the state and federal levels so that we can begin to reduce the dangers of wildfire for rural and urban Oregonians alike.”

Despite the public anger over the bill, others maintain the spirit of the law was correct and only needs fine tuning.

Nothing fine-tuning won't fix?

"The state may not have gotten the methodology right in these first drafts of wildfire risk maps. But the risk maps and wildfire hardening requirements mandated under SB 762 are urgently needed to save lives and property from future wildfires," Deschutes County Commissioner Phil Chang said.

Statewide, around 2,000 Oregonians gave feedback to the agency since the release of the wildfire risk map in July, much of it concerning the risk classification.

“We have a window of opportunity before the new codes go into effect to take some immediate steps toward addressing those concerns, and we will be taking full advantage of the opportunity,” Mukumoto said.

The withdrawal of the initial map and notifications ends the current appeals process. Appeals already submitted will be reviewed and used to identify potential changes to the map data.

The agency’s decision does not impact the code development and adoption processes that are underway through the Office of the State Fire Marshal for defensible space or the Building Codes Division for home hardening.

Mukumoto admits in the statement that the agency did not have enough time for public outreach ahead of the deadline for delivering the map. He said once the new round of revisions is created, the map will be reposted and new notices to property owners will be sent to those in extreme and high-risk classifications, starting a new appeal period.

“We are in the process of developing a plan and timeline to complete these activities, including public engagement and outreach opportunities,” said Mukumoto. “We will share that publicly as soon as it is complete.”

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