By Bob Hart
It seems like wildfires during the summer have become a way of life in Southern Oregon. But an unexpected “wildfire” was lit in the summer of 2022 with the arrival of letters to thousands of property owners informing them that they were high or extreme risk for wildfires as shown on a newly published map from the state Department of Forestry and Oregon State University. The map was then posted on the internet.
The map is one part of the requirements from the passage of Senate Bill 762, adopted by emergency on July 19, 2021. The legislative session was held in the middle of the COVID pandemic when the Capitol was closed to the public and all work was done by remote meetings. Almost no one in Oregon knew about the bill until the letters arrived.
State Forestry said in the letter that the agency would hold meetings to explain the new map. The first meeting scheduled for Grants Pass was canceled the day of the meeting, with claims that threats had been made. The meeting scheduled for the next day, in Medford, was changed to a Zoom meeting. Over 1,200 persons signed up with more than 600 wanting to testify. People testified that the maps were wrong. Irrigated fields were shown as “extreme risk.” Others testified their fire insurance had been canceled or dramatically increased. Based on the complaints of inaccurate maps and the impacts created, the map was withdrawn. Most thought that the problem had gone away.
However, 11 state agencies assigned parts of the wildfire program continue with tasks. The adopted bill is 24 pages in length. The tasks that most affect property owners will be new regulations. I will cover the most impactive issues here, but because of space all the details cannot be covered.
“Defensible space” will be a new requirement for high and extreme risk properties on the fire map. Vegetation will need to be removed or trimmed in the vicinity of buildings. The required distance around buildings is 50 feet radius in high danger areas and 100 feet radius in extreme risk areas. Trees will need to be spaced and trimmed, brush removed and plant debris picked up. The State Fire Marshal will inspect properties, or the inspection can be delegated to local government or fire districts. Reports for each property are required, and there will be future inspections because “vegetation grows back.” So, this is not a one-time inspection. Eventually, if you fail to meet standards you can be fined.
Building codes are being changed to “harden structures” to fire. Codes will regulate roofing materials, windows and siding to be fire proof for new construction and for existing structures if they are remodeled. Oregon Home Builders Association estimates that a 1,400 square foot building will cost $8,200 more because of these changes.
The Department of Land Conservation and Development is to develop updates for local governments to adopt to reduce fire risk. This means new zoning codes to regulate development are coming. A report was completed Sept. 16 to go to the legislature for drafting of new laws that will affect land use including road systems, subdivision design, structure location and setbacks as a starting point. Specific uses such as schools or commercial or industrial uses can require additional fuel breaks or water sources for firefighting if not completely prohibited. A full package of model ordinances is proposed. Details are not available yet.
Electric companies are required to make their facilities safer from fire with some improved equipment and more vegetation trimming. Increased costs are to be passed on to you in your power bill. The power companies will also figure out how to turn off power during high fire danger periods. No power, so your well won’t work, and your refrigerators and freezers won’t work.
State Forestry budget laws include a maximum charge to property owners of $25 per year for fire protection. This limit has been removed. The budget is being significantly increased with more people and equipment, and the property owners must cover the increased budget. This can be a lien against your property. If you don’t pay, you can lose your home.
The state is to talk to insurance companies regarding insurance policy coverage provisions, underwriting standards, insurance rates and any other topics relevant to enhancing the protection of property from wildfire at a reasonable cost. The bill does not say rates won’t go up. State officials claim they talked to insurance companies and that the new rules have not changed fire insurance rates or cancellations at this time. Many people have claimed differently.
State Forestry announced a draft revised map will be reissued on March 1, 2023, and a formal appeal period will continue until December. The other state agencies have a deadline of the end of this year to make required changes.
What can be done to oppose these changes? Contact the state. The map was withdrawn because of public response. Comment cards have been made to help you identify your concerns. These cards are available at the Republican Party Headquarters. The changes will affect us all, regardless of party. We would like to gather the comments and submit them all at once for more impact. If you don’t like what is happening, get involved now.
Bob Hart was a county planner for 20 years and has 25 years’ experience as a private planning consultant. An Air Force veteran, he has been a Southern Oregon resident for 44 years and enjoys his hobby of drag racing.