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Know the West

Fire risk map ignites controversy

Southern Oregon residents lash back at wildfire preparedness rules.

In July, a thin white envelope appeared in 150,000 Oregon mailboxes, with a short letter inside that sparked a statewide controversy. The Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) was assigning wildfire risk levels to property, and residents in high or extreme risk areas and in the wildland-urban interface — where development and flammable vegetation collide — would likely become subject to new building codes and standards for creating defensible space. 

 

Mitigating fire risk is an urgent issue throughout the West, including Oregon, where wildfires burned a record-breaking number of homes in 2020. Oregon’s new property assessment, part of broader wildfire legislation, marked an inflection point in its state-level wildfire response; for the first time, the state designated wildfire risk with the intent of regulating statewide home-defense measures. Conversations about the new legislation began in 2019, and new codes and standards became law in July 2021. But some Oregonians weren’t familiar with the process, and the letter caught them off guard, prompting anger and angst over what many saw as a costly attack on private property rights. Were the new regulations necessary to protect life and property? Or just a financial burden and an imposition on people’s land?

On the risk map, orange and red swaths indicating heightened wildfire risk cover much of the state. Statewide backlash was swift.  Officials had planned public meetings in July to discuss the map, but after they received at least one call threatening violence, they held the Grants Pass meeting on Zoom instead. Many attendees accused the ODF of incorrectly categorizing their property and trying to hurt their pocketbooks. The meeting lasted more than two hours, but that still wasn’t enough time for everyone who wanted to voice an opinion to speak.

 “Do we have the capacity to respond and save ourselves, or not?” 

Many homeowners protested the fire risk map developed by the Oregon Department of Forestry in the summer of 2022. It has since been withdrawn and a new map will be released in late 2023 following more outreach meetings and an education campaign.
Oregon Wildfire Risk Explorer

After a tumultuous few weeks, the ODF withdrew the map and canceled the notices it sent. It’s now working with Oregon State University, which helped develop the map, to refine it and issue a revised iteration in 2023. “We underestimated and didn’t pay attention to the need to communicate, to start the dialogue with citizens, earlier,” said Sen. Jeff Golden, a Democrat from Ashland who sponsored the original legislation. “We’re talking about a new area of regulation of private property. That’s a very big deal.”

The botched rollout illuminates the challenges of making wildfire-preparedness regulations socially and politically palatable. “It’s sort of a condensed version of the climate change test,” Golden said. “Which is: Do we have the capacity to respond and save ourselves, or not?” 

WHEN THE MAP was released in July, residents were confused about what they’d be expected to do as a result; the new building codes and standards were still in development. “A lot of folks are already going above and beyond what the standards are going to ask for, frankly,” said Alison Green, public affairs director for the Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal. The map’s midsummer drop also coincided with peak fire season, and state fire officials were already stretched thin responding to blazes.

Many railed against the designations, calling them government overreach. Historically, Oregon has delegated more decision-making authority to local communities, said Peter Walker, a University of Oregon professor who studies social-political adaptation to wildfire. “That’s not what (this bill) did.”

But others believe wildfire management needs to occur at the state level. Flames follow fuel, not property lines, and when a county’s firefighting capacity is exhausted by a bigger burn, it can ask the state for help. “The state should manage the risk, because, ultimately, they pay the bill,” said Bob Horton, former fire chief for Jackson County Fire District 3, who supports the comprehensive fire law. “The important part of the map, and what I liked about the (legislation), is that it looked at it as a statewide problem. This isn’t a county-by-county issue. … Risk is interdependent.”

An aerial view of homes destroyed by wildfire in Talent, Oregon, in September 2020.
 

In public meetings, state officials and residents talked past one another. Agency staff provided technical explanations about how the map was created, while citizens wanted specifics on its implications. “This is going to hurt me,” one woman said in a public meeting. “It’s going to hurt my property; it’s going to hurt my family.” One couple asked if they could surround their property with a moat to lower their risk designation. 

 “This is going to hurt me. It’s going to hurt my property; it’s going to hurt my family.” 

What many perceived as errors on the map further eroded public trust. The ODF heard numerous complaints, for example, about a duplex where half the property was deemed high risk and the other moderate. ODF spokesperson Derek Gasperini said the landscape-scale model’s pixels don’t perfectly align with each lot, which can result in “awkward” flaws.

Jean Hart, a longtime resident of Rogue River, is one of hundreds of upset rural property owners. Even though she said she’s already established defensible space and removed dangerous trees, her property was designated “extreme.” Other landowners had similar complaints.

The risk model, however, also takes into account weather, climate and topography; the only factor homeowners can control is vegetation. While land modifications like thinning or irrigating might help a house survive flames, it’s not always enough to overcome an area’s overarching risk.

SOME HOMEOWNERS FEARED that their insurance companies would jack up rates or cancel their policies. In the July Zoom meeting, one man shared a story of dramatic cost increases and claimed that the insurance company blamed the new map. Similar anecdotes followed.

But the Oregon Division of Financial Regulation, which regulates insurance, says that insurance companies in Oregon have not used the state wildfire risk map, nor did they plan to use it. “The level of misinformation that we were dealing with was astronomical,” said Brian Fordham, the division’s property and casualty manager. Companies must justify raising rates or dropping consumers, and they can be penalized for lying to regulators. In an official request for information made by the division, nobody cited the new map; instead, they said they rely on their own internal models. California recently became the first state in the country to require that insurance companies reduce premiums for customers who decrease their fire risk by removing flammable vegetation or having a fire-resistant roof. But so far, Oregon has no such regulations on the books.

Bly, Oregon, residents Tim and Dee McCauley on the charred wreckage of their property after the Bootleg Fire in July 2021.
Mathieu Lewis-Rolland / Getty Images

MEANWHILE, A RESISTANCE MOVEMENT has mobilized against the legislation in southern Oregon, including calls to repeal it entirely. The Facebook page for a landowners’ interest group serves as the nucleus for the movement. The group’s 2,400 members, including Hart, use Facebook to organize strategy meetings, share concerns and lobby insults at politicians and state staff. “This law was ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back,’ after several years of unwanted mandated legislation and orders in Oregon,” Hart wrote in an email.

The group’s members express suspicion of elected officials and land-management agencies and say further land-use restrictions and wildfire codes violate their property rights. 

“They aren’t interested in homes being protected from wildfire ... they appear to be much more interested in simply forcing everyone to live in a town or city.” 

“They aren’t interested in homes being protected from wildfire ... they appear to be much more interested in simply forcing everyone to live in a town or city,” one commenter wrote. “Mostly the area that the map put on high was because most of us are Rep(ublican) party,” said another. Alexander Reid Ross, a geography professor at Portland State University who focuses on extremism, said he wasn’t surprised that the new rules were received coldly. “There’s often a sense of, ‘If I give them an inch, they’ll take a yard,’ when it comes to government regulation,” he said.

The Department of Forestry plans to release a new map in late 2023 following more outreach meetings and an education campaign statewide, though an agency spokesperson said the map is unlikely to be fundamentally different. What will happen when people are told, for the second time, that they live in high or extreme risk areas? Walker thinks reissuing the map won’t change the public’s response. “I think it’s potentially even more explosive,” he said. “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig, and people are going to recognize it’s the same thing.”    

Kylie Mohr is an editorial fellow for High Country News writing from Montana. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy