Fire officials weigh in on wildfire bill
Last updated 6/28/2022 at Noon
Fire Chief Roger Johnson of Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire District is vigilant in an effort to catch sparks of what he thinks might be undue concern among Sisters Country property owners as to their potential cost of hardening their dwellings to mitigate fire risk.
Oregon Senate Bill 762 is a $220 million sweeping legislation that deals with a wide range of wildfire issues. Some advocates have raised red flags about potential costs.
Johnson was particularly uneasy about the testimony of one witness before the Senate hearings, upon which The Nugget reported last week, that 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.
The chief referenced the April 2020 Wildfire Mitigation Advisory Committee (WMAC) Report prepared by Deschutes County Community Development Department, of which he is a committee member: “Comparing costs from a standard single-family residential dwelling to one built to comply with the R327 standards ranged from $0 to $15,000. The WMAC recognized that building a single-family residence to R327 standards would likely increase construction costs, but did not agree on how much it would cost.”
Johnson wants to make sure that the picture isn’t painted with too broad a brush. The Nugget’s initial story in the June 22 edition cited estimates from Oregon Department of Forestry that about 900,000 Oregon tax lots may be within the wildland-urban interface (WUI), and about 230,000 of those tax lots may be classified as being at extreme or high risk.
Chief Johnson sought to clarify: “In order for the requirements of SB 762 to apply to your property, it must be classified as high or extreme risk and be identified as being within the WUI.Homes outside of these classifications should not be subject to the requirements of SB 762.
“Insurance companies make independent risk decisions based on their proprietary risk processes.Some use Verisk’s Fire Line tool and they may also use satellite data or on-site inspections. Insurance companies are not required to consider the risk classifications of SB 762.
“It’s important to know that residents may be required by their insurance company to perform defensible space work separate from the requirements of SB 762. Oregon has an option for people who are struggling to find fire insurance. The Oregon Fair Plan Association can be accessed at https://orfairplan.com/.”
Farmers and ranchers have raised concerns about the impact of SB 762 on their operations. According to Johnson, those impacts — if any — have yet to be determined.
“The process doesn’t have to be completed until December of 2022,” he said. “ Agricultural lands are not expected to be widely impacted by the defensible space code for a variety of reasons. First, the density requirements for WUI mapping require that there be at least one structure greater than 400 square feet per 40 acres to be considered in the WUI. Most commercial agricultural properties will not meet this requirement.There will also likely be exemptions for irrigated lands and croplands. Lastly, most land that is used for commercial agricultural purposes is flat to rolling ground that will not rate as a high or extreme wildfire risk.”
As for impact on Sisters communities in the forest, like Tollgate, Black Butte Ranch, and Sage Meadows, Johnson said: “It should be noted that there are several exceptions to the R327 requirements including subdivisions that are more than 50 percent developed. So, most existing subdivisions (Tollgate, Crossroads, Cascade Meadow Ranch, Squaw Creek Canyon Estates, ClearPine, Pine Meadow, etc.) likely won’t be required to harden homes. We would strongly recommend that homeowners consider the benefits of home hardening and still build to the R327 standard.”
Assistant Chief Deputy State Fire Marshal Chad E. Hawkins was in full agreement with Johnson’s concerns.
“Chief Johnson is spot on and provided great clarification,” he wrote. “Chief Johnson has been an integral participant in numerous committees and stakeholder groups representing the Oregon Fire Chiefs Association.”
Recognizing that there may be concerns over and opposition to SB 762 requirements, Johnson concluded: “Lastly, I think it is important to recognize that the status quo is not a good option for Oregon. The Labor Day Fires of 2020 highlighted the deficiencies in wildfire response and preparedness. While some stakeholder and special interest groups may have different perspectives on the best approach to deal with the challenges the state faces, most would agree that some change was needed.”
Under provisions of SB 762, the Sisters-Camp Sherman Rural Fire Protection District is the beneficiary of a $35,000 grant for increased wildfire response in 2022.