Wildfire bill could be costly for homeowners
Last updated 6/21/2022 at Noon
Senate Bill 762, adopted last June, provided legislative direction to the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) regarding the wildland-urban interface, statewide fire risk mapping, and prescribed fire, directing the Department to review and clarify the enforcement of rules pertaining to forestland and baseline standards for unprotected and under-protected lands in Oregon.
The ODF is a state agency and the U.S. Forest Service is federal. The ODF fights fires, among myriad other tasks, on state-owned lands like state parks. More importantly it is the first line of defense for many private woodlands.
As Oregon’s largest fire department, ODF’s Fire Protection Program protects 16 million acres of forest, a $60 billion asset. These lands consist of privately owned forests as well as some public lands, including state-owned forests and, by contract, U.S. Bureau of Land Management forests in western Oregon.
The ODF’s stated firefighting policy is straightforward: “Put out fires quickly at the smallest possible size. Most of the lands protected by the agency are working forests that produce revenue and support jobs. It is crucial to prevent fire damage to the timber resource that is an essential element of Oregon’s economy. This aggressive approach to firefighting also safeguards ecosystem values such as fish and wildlife habitats.”
But if you live in Tollgate, or Black Butte Ranch, or Sage Meadow or any number of large scale sub-divisions that abut the Deschutes National Forest, You are coming under the effects of SB 762. The sweeping legislation is a $220 million authorization bill to help Oregon modernize and improve wildfire preparedness.
The legislation provides direction and funds to several state agencies. For ODF the bill, among other things, provides legislative direction regarding the WUI (wildland-urban interface); statewide fire risk mapping; prescribed fires; directing the Department to review and clarify the enforcement of rules pertaining to forestland; baseline standards for unprotected and under-protected lands in Oregon; and establishes grant programs to improve forest restoration and resiliency.
Even while heralded as bi-partisan, the comprehensive legislation still does not meet the demands of environmentalists and has some large property owners skeptical.
Under the bill, ODF is in charge of creating a statewide map of wildfire risk. This map — which includes your home — will serve as the state’s map for all wildfire risk efforts. ODF is directed to map every Oregon parcel and assign a wildfire risk to the property. From a 5,000-acre ranch in Madras to a vacation rental in Sisters, ODF will classify every parcel in one of five wildfire risk classes: extreme, high, moderate, low, and no risk.
In just one week, ODF will complete its risk mapping and assign a risk category to each individual property; they must then define and map the wildland-urban interface. As it reads, the WUI is supposed to consist of those areas where a mix of housing and wildland fuels exist. The mixing of both is the interface.
Using the best available fire science and common sense, the WUI should include areas where a cluster of homes mixes with unkept wild areas. Get too far into town and there’s urban but no wildland. Get too far out of town and there’s wildland but no urban. It’s those areas where both clustered development and wildland fuels that can rapidly spread a fire are present that should be mapped as the WUI.
OPOA (Oregon Property Owners Association) sees the potential impact of the OSFM defensible space regulations to property owners as significant and worrisome.
“Farmers may find themselves being forced to remove crops near a barn, a rural resident may be forced to significantly alter their landscaped yard, a property owner may be prohibited from building a home on their property, and a small woodlot owner may be required to remove (and not replant) a stand of timber near a structure,” they said in a letter to their members.
During the hearings on SB 762, experts estimated that the new construction requirements could add as much as $100,000 to the cost of a new home or the remodeling of an existing structure in high-risk locations.
If you live close to the WUI and don’t “harden” your property, you could risk losing your insurance or face administrative enforcement action or both. The ODF estimates about 900,000 tax lots may be within the wildland-urban interface, and about 230,000 of those tax lots may be classified as being at extreme or high risk of wildfire.
Chief Roger Johnson of Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire District, in elaborating on SB 762, said: “Sisters Country residents live in an environment that has experienced significant wildfires in the past and will continue to see wildfire in the future. I think it is important for the community to know that there is no single approach to solve the wildland fire problem in the state.”
He commented further: “We plan to follow the comprehensive recommendations of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy and its three specific goals of resilient landscapes, fire-adapted communities, and safe and effective wildfire response.”
Johnson called out the involvement of the City of Sisters