By Phil Chang
Guest Editor 

Accessible and affordable insurance


Last updated 4/2/2024 at 9:42am

Sisters Country homeowners and business owners are struggling to access affordable fire insurance coverage. I’ve worked for 20 years to protect our homes and communities from wildfire and now I’m working as your Deschutes County Commissioner to keep insurance accessible and affordable for residents. We need to make our homes and communities more resilient to wildfire and then we need to get insurers to recognize those improvements in coverage and premium decisions.

Since 2004, I’ve worked to build collaborative agreement and community support to plan and implement hazardous-fuels reduction treatments on the Deschutes National Forest. These collaborative efforts helped to implement thousands of acres of thinning, brush mowing, and prescribed fire treatments on the Sisters Ranger District, including the Sisters Area Fuels Reduction (SAFR) Project and the Metolius Basin Project. These treatments were critical to containing the Pole Creek Fire (2012), the Milli Fire (2017) and the Green Ridge Fire (2021), preventing devastating losses of local homes within the Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire District.

As your County Commissioner, I’ve worked hard at the state policy level to keep Sisters Country homes safer. In my first year in office, 2021, I testified to the state legislature four times in support of the omnibus wildfire package Senate Bill 762. SB 762 has delivered real community wildfire-resiliency benefits for us over the last 3 years. First, it has delivered millions of dollars for fuels-reduction projects on private lands in Deschutes County to complement the work on the National Forest. SB 762 also created the Oregon Conservation Corps, which I sat on the founding board for. This program employs and trains local youth to help disadvantaged homeowners – think seniors on a fixed income – to implement defensible space around their homes. In addition, SB 762 requires power utilities to bury key power line segments and to make operational changes to reduce ignitions from broken lines.

I have also been involved in the most controversial part of SB 762: the statewide wildfire-hazard maps. These maps will identify high wildfire-hazard areas, where landowners will be required to create defensible space around their homes and to use fire-resistant building materials for new construction. At first, many people mistakenly thought these state maps were driving the dramatic increases in insurance premiums and withdrawals of coverage we have witnessed in Oregon since the 2020 Labor Day fires. Now, people are starting to understand that insurance companies have their own models, maps, and data, and that the state maps will actually be the tool to funnel state technical and financial assistance to homeowners to make real improvements in wildfire resiliency. The state asked me to sit on the Rulemaking Advisory Committee to complete the hazard maps and I will make sure that these maps are used to assist landowners, not target them for insurance penalties.

Devastating losses to the Awbrey Hall and Skeleton fires in the 1990s drove Deschutes County to become a national leader in assisting residents to better protect their homes. For decades, County staff have led and coordinated Project Wildfire as it offered homeowners technical and financial assistance to create defensible space around their homes and to produce Community Wildfire Protection Plans to guide neighborhood resiliency efforts. I’m ensuring that Project Wildfire has the staffing and resources it needs to keep supporting our community.

While we are well set up at the community level to make Sisters Country more resilient to wildfire we still need to translate this to ‘getting credit’ from the insurance industry for our efforts in coverage area and premium decisions. I advocated for a bill in the just-completed short legislative session that would create the system we need. Senate Bill 1511 would establish a grant program to make entire neighborhoods more resilient and then would provide state certification of those neighborhoods and require insurers to recognize that certification. We must pass this bill in 2025.

I hope to earn your vote in the upcoming May County Commissioner election so that I can keep supporting work in the forest, in your neighborhoods, and in Salem to protect our homes from wildfire and ensure access to affordable insurance coverage here.


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