Oregon Department of Forestry withdraws wildfire risk map after public pushback

Oregon's new plan to address the growing threat of wildfires is off to a rocky start.

Last month the Oregon Department of Forestry released a new map, created with Oregon State University, that outlined wildfire risk statewide in the first step toward requiring new fire-resistant codes in areas of high or extreme risk.

But after a massive amount of pushback, the agency said Thursday it's going to "remove the current iteration of the wildfire risk map."

Many in southern Oregon, in particular, were outraged that they might have to abide by new codes for fire-resistant homes or defensible space under what they viewed as a misguided and illogically created map, according to public comments on map. At public meetings, some expressed concern about the map's release already driving up insurance costs, or leaving people with no insurance, for those who live in high or extreme risk areas.

The map was created in response to Senate Bill 762, which passed the state Legislature in the wake of the Labor Day fires that burned over 1 million acres and heavily damaged cities including Detroit and Phoenix.

"We’ve received specific feedback from nearly 2,000 Oregonians that has helped us understand the key areas of concern related to risk classification," ODF said in a news release. "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.

"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."

Wildfire Risk Map by Don Currie on Scribd

Oregon House Republicans faulted the legislation and noted in a statement that "flaws in the map include designating irrigated lands under center pivots as extreme risk."

“As drafted, these arbitrary maps do not seriously deal with the problem in our forests," House Republican Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson said in a statement condemning the map as too overreaching. "We need to stop reclassifying land and passing more burdensome regulations that continue to drive up costs on Oregonians and instead deal with the real problem – forest management … these maps leave most of the burden on private landowners."

ODF also addressed the numerous appeals filed by Oregonians who did not think they were in an area classified as being under high risk.

"Since we are withdrawing the initial map and notifications, the current appeals process will end and any appeals filed will become moot," the news release said. "For those who did submit an appeal, we will be reviewing the information submitted and using it to identify any additional areas where we may need to take a closer look at the data."

The original map broke down areas of the state into extreme, high, moderate, low and zero wildfire risk. A majority of the state's landmass — 57 percent — was classified as being under extreme or high risk, centering on the Cascade Range, southwest Oregon’s Siskiyou Range and patches of northeast Oregon in the Blue, Wallowa and Elkhorn mountains. High danger is spread across much of Central Oregon.

The map found that out of a total number of 1.8 million tax lots in Oregon, 120,276 were in high or extreme risk classifications and that 80,000 tax lots had a structure that might be subject to new codes or standards, and that the new standards would apply beginning April 1, 2023.

Now, apparently, it's back to the drawing board.

Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter in Oregon for 15 years and is host of the Explore Oregon Podcast. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.

This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Oregon withdraws controversial wildfire risk map after outcry