News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

State’s fire risk maps drawing heat

Oregon’s new wildfire risk maps are drawing fire statewide.

The new fire assessment tool, mandated by state legislation, debuted June 30, but the program already is sparking controversy.

Leading the charge are two Republican Oregon legislators, Sen. Lynn Findley of Vale and Rep. Mark Owens of Crane. The two legislators on Wednesday released a scathing statement on the maps and called for the Oregon Department of Forestry “to stop this process and recall the map.”

Findley and Owens claimed the department made “serious errors” and that a “lack of transparency and abuse of process” marred the work.

“The map as it stands has no credibility and the Oregon Department of Forestry needs to take ownership and leadership and re-evaluate immediately,” Owens wrote. “This map serves as an ill-informed, unreviewed, and dangerous and divisive product pitting homeowners against the state of Oregon.”

Searchable by address, the online map notes the wildfire risk for every property in the state as well as including whether the property is in the wildland urban interface.

The map is color coded, with green indicating the lowest fire risk and red the highest.

Findley and Owens wrote that the risk assessments resulted “in hundreds, if not thousands, of tax lots outside the WUI that are now classified as extreme or high risk. This is a major problem for homeowners as insurers will most certainly raise rates, or as we have heard from our constituents, threaten outright policy cancellations.”

Brian Fordham of Oregon’s Division of Financial Regulation said at a July 27 virtual forum that insurance companies have been studying wildfire risk for decades and the only change is this data is now available to the public for the first time.

Also, Doug Grafe, wildlife programs adviser to Gov. Kate Brown, said at a July 5 press conference that he did not expect rates to go up for people who have made their home and property safer.

Senate Bill 762, the wildfire preparedness and resiliency bill that mandated the maps, also calls for property owners in high risk areas of the wildland urban interface to fire-harden properties and create defensible space by removing vegetation that could fuel a fire.

New codes for fire-hardening and defensible space are being developed by state agencies and are projected to be ready to debut next spring, state officials said. Property owners have the right to appeal their risk map designations but must do so by Sept. 21. 

One question that remains unanswered is whether wildfire risk assessments undertaken by individual communities should take precedence over the new maps. Chris Chambers, wildfire division chief in Ashland, told Oregon Public Broadcasting there are serious discrepancies between the new maps and the extensive 6,000-home “sidewalk survey” his department undertook. Chambers also said the state failed to consider how embers travel as it put together its maps.

Oregon Department of Forestry public affairs officer Derek Gasperini said Wednesday that the department “still is evaluating multiple legislative recall requests and will have a response shortly.”

However, Tim Holschbach, ODF’s deputy chief of policy and planning, addressed some of the issues in the OPB interview that also included Chambers.

Holschbach said that Oregon State University College of Forestry officials, who were charged with developing the maps, used ”national best practices. OSU is a leader in wildfire modeling.”

Holschbach said, “the same data we’ve been utilizing for the creation of this map has been utilized in other aspects of community wildfire protection plans.”

The League of Oregon Cities also defended the risk maps. In a news release dated July 29 the agency said it “is urging every city to review the mapping results to determine any possible changes to the maps related to the wildfire risk categories. This is the time to bring forward details and data to make a case for adjustments. Details of the wildfire mapping process are critical to understand what the mapping is, and what it is not. There is a lot of misinformation circulating based on public comment.”

Public comment sessions on the maps were held earlier in La Grande and The Dalles, with a third meeting set for 7 p.m. Aug. 10, at the Deschutes County Fairgrounds in Redmond.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

To access the risk map and its tools go to https://oregonexplorer.info/topics/wildfire-risk?ptopic=2. Click on the Oregon Wildfire Explorer tab and enter your address in the “search by address” field. The site also will generate a homeowner’s report and includes links to additional resources.

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