Oregon’s wildfire risk map emerges as new climate flashpoint

Aug 4, 2022, 8:48 PM | Updated: Aug 5, 2022, 8:50 am
FILE - This aerial image taken with a drone shows homes leveled by the Almeda Fire line at Bear Lak...

FILE - This aerial image taken with a drone shows homes leveled by the Almeda Fire line at Bear Lake Estates in Phoenix, Ore., on Sept. 15, 2020. A new map in Oregon that rated the wildfire risk of every tax lot in the state, labeling nearly 80,000 properties as high-risk, generated so much pushback from angry homeowners that officials abruptly retracted it, saying they had not done enough local outreach before publicizing the ambitious project. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

(AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A new map in Oregon that rated the wildfire risk of every tax lot in the state — labeling nearly 80,000 structures as high-risk — generated so much pushback from angry homeowners that officials abruptly retracted it, saying they had not done enough local outreach before publicizing the ambitious project.

The rapid reversal, announced late Thursday, capped weeks of mounting frustration in mostly rural areas as the map emerged as a new flashpoint for conservatives who call it government overreach and “climate change evangelism.”

Oregon State Forester Cal Mukumoto said in a statement his agency got specific feedback from 2,000 residents about problems with the risk designations that were assigned by the Oregon Explorer project and said climate scientists would refine the map and reissue a new version at a later date.

The map was part of a $220 million bill passed last year to prepare Oregon for worsening, climate change-fueled wildfires.

“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,” wrote Mukumoto, who reiterated that Oregon is at a critical juncture with wildfires and needs to take bold action. “We know how important it is to get this right.”

Fierce opposition bubbled up at community meetings prior to the state’s step back. Residents and some local officials worried it would lead to insurance rate increases or coverage loss, while others bridled at new mandates for defensible space and rules for future construction that flow from the map’s designations.

One information session in the conservative southwest corner of the state was canceled after someone threatened violence.

“I’m sitting in a place here right now where I’m overlooking several hundred acres that are irrigated, they’re green year-round and yet they’re in ‘high’ or ‘extreme’ risk category. They’re never going to burn,” said Brandon Larsen, who spoke during a session that was moved online in Medford.

“This is more about climate change evangelism than it is about actually protecting people from the risks that are out there.”

The Oregon Department of Forestry, which created the risk map with experts from Oregon State University, said the fire policies triggered by the initial map are intended to prevent more catastrophic wildfires — not make life more difficult for homeowners.

“Many of the comments that we’ve received and much of the concern is around, ‘I’ve already done what I can around my home so I should be at a lower risk.’ This isn’t a risk assessment of that defensible space,” Derek Gasperini, agency spokesman, said before the map was retracted.

“The map is the risk of wildfire occurrence and there are certain things you just can’t impact. You can’t affect the weather, you can’t change the fact that you live in a hot and dry climate.”

With climate change, wildfire risk maps like Oregon’s are likely to become increasingly common for homeowners, and even those maps will need to be updated frequently to keep up with the changing dynamics of climate change, said Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University.

California, which has long had hazard maps, passed a new law in 2018 requiring homeowners in high-risk areas to pass a defensible space inspection before buying or selling the property.

Meanwhile, the population of the U.S. West in the so-called wildland-urban interface — the boundary where development encroaches on natural areas — grew the fastest in places with vegetation that’s the most sensitive to drought and most vulnerable to fire, Diffenbaug said.

Oregon is trying to address that challenge with a sweeping bill that was voted into law after a barrage of fire storms across Oregon in September 2020 that burned more than 1 million acres and destroyed 4,000 homes, many of them in rural areas.

In addition to assigning tax lots one of five wildfire risk levels, the legislation updated and refined the state’s 25-year-old “wildland-urban interface” map that identifies areas where development abuts forests and wild areas, raising wildfire risk. The bill also added funding for 20 new State Fire Marshal positions.

Starting next year, property owners on tax lots designated “high” or “extreme” risk that also fall within the updated wildland-urban interface must comply with minimum defensible space requirements. Those requirements, which are still being decided, could include things such as cutting tree limbs that are less than six feet from the ground, clearing up to 100 feet from the home and removing trees and branches that overhang roofs and chimneys.

State officials are also creating a building code for future development in these areas that will require things like attic vents, fire-resistant roofing and fire-resistant siding for any construction that requires a permit. Existing homes do not need to be changed.

Those provisions remain the same despite Thursday’s action.

“I call it commonsense fire safety, and in all reality a lot of Oregonians are already doing this work or going well beyond this work to keep their homes safe” in these high-risk areas, said Assistant Chief Deputy Chad Hawkins with the Oregon State Fire Marshal.

Grants will be available to homeowners who can’t afford to clear around their property and when the mandates first take effect the state will focus on education, not penalties, Hawkins said.

Still, many homeowners are wary of the mapping project and worry about their insurance coverage and property value.

“After looking at this map, you guys have blanketed lots of areas as the same designation and nobody ever came out to our house to designate us, high, low or whatever,” Sherry Roberts said of the first version of the map. Roberts said she was evacuated but her irrigated farm survived southern Oregon’s massive Obenchain Fire in 2020.

Those who specialize in wildfires and the insurance industry said fears that coverage would be reduced or canceled specifically because of Oregon’s new risk map were unfounded.

Insurers “have way better maps. They’re not going to just take the state’s word on the maps,” said Michael Wara, director of the Climate Energy Policy Program at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment.


Follow Gillian Flaccus at http://www.twitter.com/gflaccus

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Associated Press

WA GOP House member who voted to impeach Trump concedes

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, one of two Republican members of Washington’s congressional delegation who voted to impeach Donald Trump, has conceded her reelection bid after being overtaken in late vote tallies by a GOP challenger endorsed by the former president. Trump had targeted the six-term incumbent and endorsed Joe Kent, a […]
19 hours ago
Sam Payne, of Dummerston, fills out a ballot at the Dummerston, Vt., Polling Station for the state'...
Associated Press

Balint wins Vermont’s Democratic primary for US House

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — The leader of Vermont’s state Senate, Becca Balint, won the Democratic Party primary on Tuesday for Vermont’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, meaning she could become the first woman and the first openly gay person to represent the state in Congress. In deep-blue Vermont, it’s likely the Democratic […]
19 hours ago
FILE - Protesters line the street around the front of the Nebraska State Capitol during an Abortion...
Associated Press

Nebraska woman charged with helping daughter have abortion

OMAHA, Nebraska (AP) — A Nebraska woman has been charged with helping her teenage daughter end her pregnancy at about 24 weeks after investigators uncovered Facebook messages in which the two discussed using medication to induce an abortion and plans to burn the fetus afterward. The prosecutor handling the case said it’s the first time […]
19 hours ago
Associated Press

Army: 2 soldiers dead in weather-related incident in Georgia

FORT BENNING, Ga. (AP) — Two soldiers based at Fort Benning, Georgia, died and three others were injured in a weather-related incident Tuesday during training on a mountain in the northern part of the state, Army officials said Tuesday. An Army spokesperson told WAGA-TV that the deceased soldiers, whose names have not yet been released, […]
19 hours ago
Associated Press

Monkeys under attack in Brazil amid rising monkeypox fears

SAO PAULO (AP) — The World Health Organization expressed sorrow on Tuesday for the killing of monkeys in Brazil amid fears of monkeypox contagion. Brazilian news website G1 reported on Sunday that 10 monkeys had been poisoned in less than a week in the city of Sao Jose do Rio Preto, in Sao Paulo state. […]
19 hours ago
FILE - Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., questions Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Capitol Hill in Wash...
Associated Press

Rep. Scott Perry says FBI agents seized his cellphone

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. Rep. Scott Perry said his cellphone was seized Tuesday morning by FBI agents carrying a search warrant. The circumstances surrounding the seizure were not immediately known. Perry, though, has been a figure in the congressional investigation into President Donald Trump’s actions leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection. Former […]
19 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]

Compassion International Is Determined to ‘Fill’ a Unique Type of Football ‘Stadium’

Compassion International SPONSORED — During this fall’s football season—and as the pandemic continues to impact the entire globe—one organization has been urging caring individuals to help it “fill” a unique type of “stadium” in order to make a lasting difference in the lives of many. Compassion International’s distinctive Fill the Stadium (FtS, fillthestadium.com) initiative provides […]

What are the Strongest, Greenest, Best Windows?

Lake Washington Windows & Doors SPONSORED — Fiberglass windows are an excellent choice for window replacement due to their fundamental strength and durability. There is no other type of window that lasts as long as fiberglass; so why go with anything else? Fiberglass windows are 8x stronger than vinyl, lower maintenance than wood, more thermally […]
Oregon’s wildfire risk map emerges as new climate flashpoint