Property owners want more answers about fire risk map that affects 80,000 properties in Oregon

Jul. 28—After more than 1,200 people logged into a Zoom meeting Wednesday night in Southern Oregon to learn more about the state's new fire risk map, one of the sponsors of the legislation that led to the map's creation said the process may need reining in.

"I think this map needs work," state Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, said in an interview Thursday morning, referring to a statewide map created by Oregon State University and the Oregon Department of Forestry that places every property in Oregon into a fire risk category.

The map, and Senate Bill 762, the legislation that spawned it, is part of a comprehensive effort by the Legislature to address worsening fires that have devastated communities in Oregon the past several years.

People who own property in high or extreme fire risk areas inside of a wildland-urban interface zone may face a host of new requirements, including home-hardening building codes still being written, new defensible space requirements yet to be unveiled — and quite possibly higher insurance rates or even cancellation of insurance.

As many as 120,000 tax lots, about 8.8% of properties in Oregon, fall within the highest risk zones, OSU researcher Chris Dunn told people at the Zoom meeting.

"I think there are gaps in this map between what science tells us and what you see with your eyes when you walk around," Golden said. "And we've got to interface more with the insurance industry. We already knew we had to, but we need to lift that to a higher priority."

Discussion of how property insurance could be affected by the new risk map was a recurring theme during a question-and-answer portion of Wednesday's meeting.

Vince Webb, who lives on an 80-acre property outside Grants Pass that the new map puts in the extreme-risk category, said his homeowner insurance was canceled three weeks ago when his policy came up for renewal. The reason given by his insurance company was the property's designation on the new fire map, he said during the Zoom meeting.

That was surprising, Webb said, because until that point he hadn't heard of the new map, which was released to the public last month. His first look came after he and other property owners around the state who are affected by the new risk categories were sent notices last week informing them of the map.

Webb said he shopped around, checking up to a dozen other insurance companies — some of which would not provide quotes due to the fire risk map. He finally purchased a new policy — the cheapest he could find — that cost $2,000 more per year than his previous policy.

"This is something that could happen to anyone with a high or extreme flag on the map," Webb said in an interview Thursday.

Nothing in SB 762 addresses the possibility of insurance cancellation or rate increases — even for people who follow all the rules to harden their properties and create defensible space, said Brian Fordham, Oregon insurance product regulation and compliance manager, during the Zoom session.

"They are trying to glaze over it, but there is a 900-pound gorilla in the room, and it's the insurance issue," Webb said Thursday. "For whatever reason, nobody is talking about that. There's a lot of ripples from this, and it's already affected me."

In addition to the property where he lives, Webb owns Orgro Business Park, at 2795 Foothill Blvd., in Grants Pass. Located just off Interstate 5, the property is paved and graveled with no grass or brush, covered with metal buildings and fenced, yet it is listed on the new map in a high-risk zone.

"My insurance policy for the business property is up for renewal in October, and I've been told by my insurance broker the policy is under review," he said.

Golden said Thursday that no one should have their insurance canceled if they are working to make their property safer from fire.

"We need to make sure people who are doing what they can to reduce their fire risk can get insurance," Golden said.

He also said, "we have to look hard at the deadlines," referring to a schedule that shows new fire-hardening building codes and defensible space requirements that are scheduled to go into effect early in 2023.

Several people at the meeting were upset their properties were listed as being in an extreme risk fire zone in spite of being part of Firewise communities, or who have taken steps to reduce their fire risk.

They wanted to know whether ODF or others would make site visits to look at their properties if they appeal their listings on the maps.

State officials were unclear on whether site visits would be made. For one thing, ODF personnel qualified to judge a property's fire risk are in the middle of fire season, and with 80,000 or more affected properties, that would be a tall order.

"There should be people going in on the ground," Golden said. "If I were a property owner, I'd like a visit."

For that to happen, the Legislature will have to look at adding money to ODF budgets to fund field visits, he said.

Other people at the meeting said they felt property owners were being asked to shoulder most of the costs spurred by SB 762, yet they have little to do with the causes of fires, such as arson — in the case of the Almeda Fire and several fires intentionally set already this year — and poor forest management practices by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service.

For instance, many property owners who will be required to create defensible space around their homes are themselves surrounded by federal land that causes the high-risk situation, yet federal land managers are not required to make any changes or create fire breaks between their lands and private properties on the maps.

"I really understand how upset people are," Golden stressed. "I'm not surprised by their distress. But the thing we have to keep in the front of our minds is that our communities are burning down now. A large part of this valley could burn down.

"That means launching soon and course-correcting as we go. ... Without bold action, the Almeda Fire, and probably worse, is Oregon's future."

"We are trying to defend our state from destruction," he added during the Zoom meeting. "It's right here. We don't need any more demonstrations."

To view a recording of Wednesday's Zoom meeting, see https://youtu.be/ExX0Wx7_xdY

Reach Mail Tribune editor David Smigelski at dsmigelski@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4484.