Wildfire risk map pulled back

·4 min read

Aug. 5—The director of Oregon Department of Forestry announced late Thursday the state was pulling back its wildfire risk map created and released to the public last month.

Also being rescinded are notices sent to property owners listed on the map as being in high- and extreme-risk zones and wildland-urban interface zones.

The wildfire risk map, created as part of SB 762, which passed the Legislature in 2021, was the subject of a public hearing last Wednesday that drew more than 1,200 viewers over Zoom.

Meetings to discuss the map and what it means for property owners were scheduled to be held in person in Medford and Grants Pass, but the in-person meetings were canceled after ODF said it received a threatening message in Grants Pass.

Those who attended the Zoom meeting raised a host of concerns about the risk map — including inaccurate mapping, increased property insurance, insurance cancellation and the perceived unfairness of private property owners being required to shoulder the costs of wildfires that begin on federal land or are sparked by utility companies or arsonists.

The day after the meeting, State Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, a sponsor of SB 762, said he thought the map needed to be refined.

"I think this map needs work," Golden said. "I think there are gaps in this map between what science tells us and what you see with your eyes when you walk around. And we've got to interface more with the insurance industry. ... We need to make sure people who are doing what they can to reduce their fire risk can get insurance."

"In response to input received since posting, we have decided to remove the current iteration of the wildfire risk map from the Oregon Explorer and withdraw the notices sent," said a published statement Thursday from Cal Mukumoto, Oregon state forester and director of Oregon Department of Forestry.

"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," the statement continued.

People who own property in high or extreme wildfire risk areas inside of a wildland-urban interface zone may face a host of new requirements under SB 762, 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.

Property owners in the high and extreme risk areas of the new fire map received written notice from ODF last week indicating their property's risk class and whether it's in the wildland-urban interface.

ODF's notices said people the agency notified may be subject to future defensible space or building code requirements. The notices also gave property owners information about how to file an appeal if they disagreed with their classification on the map. Those notices now are being withdrawn, and the appeals process has been postponed, Mukumoto's statement said.

"Since we are withdrawing the initial map and notifications, the current appeals process will end, and any appeals filed will become moot," Mukumoto 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.

"Please note, this decision does not impact the code development and adoption processes currently underway through Office of the State Fire Marshal for defensible space or Building Codes Division for home hardening.

"While we met the bill's initial deadline for delivering on the map, there wasn't enough time to allow for the type of local outreach and engagement that people wanted, needed and deserved. Once this round of refinements is complete, we are planning to bring a draft of the updated map to communities for discussion and input.

"After another round of revisions based on local input, the map will be finalized. We will then post an updated map on the Oregon Explorer and issue new notices to property owners in the extreme- and high-risk classifications, which will start a new appeal period.

"We are in the process of developing a plan and timeline to complete these activities, including public engagement and outreach opportunities. We will share that publicly as soon as it is complete."

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