Protecting Sisters against wildfire
Last updated 9/12/2023 at 10:08am
With the increasing number of record-breaking wildfires occurring in recent years, the availability and cost of homeowner’s insurance is becoming a concern for communities located in fire-prone areas.
Many traditional insurance companies have announced they will no longer write policies in fire-prone areas, having seen millions in losses due to wildfire. Other carriers have stopped renewing policies due to the increasing liability and cost of replacements.
This topic and many others were discussed last week when the local fire service agencies — Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF), U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Deschutes County Emergency Management (DCEM), Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office (OSFM), Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire District – gathered for their monthly meeting. The group is convened by Matthew Martin, City principal planner, nine months of the year, not meeting during fire season when personnel are in the field.
To an outsider, the meeting offers reassurance that coordinated, crucial planning is going on behind the scenes in the areas of fire prevention and response. In Central Oregon, three counties – Deschutes, Crook, and Jefferson – work together to offer coordinated response to fires when needed.
So far, the 2023 fire season in Central Oregon has been “good” with quick response times putting out small fires. The regional mobility coordinator for the OSFM office reported that Central Oregon task forces have been deployed to other areas in the state to help fight fires there. There have only been two conflagrations statewide. One complex fire is the one that has moved up into southern Oregon from northern California and the other is in the Columbia Gorge.
The USFS reported that there have been 71 human-caused fires on the Deschutes National Forest in 2023, and 30 caused by lightning, for total of 101 fires. Those fires burned only 41.45 acres, as firefighter response kept each fire small.
The Pete’s Lake Fire on the west side of the Cascades covers about 395 acres with no direct suppression efforts due to the rugged wildland terrain. A significant weather event involving rain or snow will extinguish that fire. Machine work will be taking place in the Crossroads area and all two- and four-digit Forest Service roads will be brushed to offer fuel breaks.
Nathan Garibay, Deschutes County Emergency Services manager, reported that small fire suppression equipment is being supplied to some patrol deputies to help extinguish small grass fires they may encounter, to keep them from spreading into heavy fuels. They carry a 2.5-gallon water extinguisher in their patrol car. The intent is to slow down fire spread before the fire service arrives. By next summer, most Deschutes County Sheriff”s Office deputies will be outfitted with the 2.5-gallon units, and some will have five-gallon backpack pumps.
Garibay encourages citizens to opt in to the Everbridge emergency alert system, which he believes is the best system, delivering the “right information in the right place.” The Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system is a Federal integrated early warning system that doesn’t require enrolling. It is the system that issues Amber Alerts among other warnings, but it is not as accurate in alerting to correct areas as Everbridge.
Chief Roger Johnson reported the Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire District has had a few mobilizations of personnel to other fire areas this summer in Roseburg and Klamath Falls.
“It’s been a great fire season for us,” the chief said, meaning there have been no large fires locally.
The smoke from the fires west of the Cascades are posing difficulties for those with certain medical conditions.
Johnson reported an uptick in the number of calls to the volunteer Fire Corps to make assessments of wildfire mediation preparations around local structures. Those assessments are available to anyone in the Sisters fire district. They will also conduct home risk assessments.
City Public Works Director Paul Bertagna reported that the public works crew will be doing fuels reduction work throughout town this fall and winter.
With a grant from the OSFM, the fire district has hired Steven Lord, a Cloverdale fire department volunteer, to address Community Fire Risk Reduction. He will work 8 a.m. – 5 p.m., five days a week, devoting half of his time to prevention and half to response. Some of his work will involve engaging with neighborhoods within the city to gain Fire Adapted Community status. Fire students will be doing similar work both inside and outside the city.
A lengthy discussion around the impacts of wildfire on insurance coverage involved all the attendees. Up until recently, insurance rates haven’t accurately reflected the risks. Because of more frequent and larger wildfires and weather events, Chief Johnson said everyone can expect increases in their premiums. Finding and affording insurance will be challenging going forward, especially for those on fixed incomes.
A recent example was given by Johnson: A new $1.5 million property in Black Butte Ranch had to pay an annual premium of $17,000 for homeowner’s insurance.
Deschutes County’s Garibay made the point, “If we don’t fix it, the insurance companies will, and we may not like it. If they can’t make money selling policies in a community they won’t be there.” He went on to say, “As individuals, we need to make good decisions with our property that contribute to the safety of the whole community.”
There is much that can be done by individual residents and the entire community to improve our chances with insurance companies. Go to https://sheriff.deschutes.org/community/safety/be-prepared-for-disaster/ to get detailed instructions for minimizing the impact of natural and human-caused incidents.
As individuals act responsibly, the conditions for the whole community improve. Getting people engaged to take ownership of their own property can help reduce the possibility of losing Sisters to a wildfire.
The Sisters fire department recently invited three local insurance agents to the fire station to review their website and how to better design their data reporting system that is accessed by data companies like Core Logic, which sell that data to insurance and re-insurance companies who make their determination regarding coverage in risk-prone areas based on the data.