Oregon’s wildfire risk map emerges as new climate flashpoint

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A new map in Oregon that assessed the wildfire risk for all tax lots in the state — and labeled nearly 80,000 structures as high risk — generated so much backlash from angry homeowners that officials abruptly retracted it, saying they hadn’t done enough local outreach before they made the ambitious project public.

The swift reversal, announced late Thursday, capped weeks of growing 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 that his agency received specific feedback from 2,000 residents about problems with the risk designations assigned by the Oregon Explorer project, and said climate scientists would refine the map and release a new version at a later date.

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

“While we met the bill’s initial deadline to deliver on the map, there was not enough time to allow for the kind of local outreach and engagement that people wanted, needed and deserved,” wrote Mukumoto, who reiterated that Oregon is at a critical juncture. along with forest fires and need bold actions. “We know how important it is to get this right.”

Fierce opposition bubbled up at community meetings before the state backed down. Residents and some local officials worried it would lead to insurance rate increases or loss of coverage, while others balked at new mandates for safe space and rules for future construction that follow from the map’s designations.

An information gathering in the conservative southwest corner of the state was canceled after someone threatened violence.

“I’m sitting here right now overlooking hundreds of acres that are irrigated, they’re green year-round and yet they’re in the ‘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 evangelizing climate change than 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 policy sparked by the first map is intended to prevent more catastrophic wildfires — not make life harder for homeowners.

“A lot of the comments we’ve received and a lot of the concern is around, ‘I’ve already done what I can around my home, so I should be at a lower risk.’ This is not a risk assessment of the defensible area, Derek Gasperini, a spokesman for the agency, said before the map was withdrawn.

“The map is the wildfire risk, and there are certain things you just can’t influence. You can’t influence 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 that requires homeowners in high-risk areas to pass a proper site inspection before buying or selling the property.

Meanwhile, the population of the western United States in the so-called wilderness-urban interface — the boundary where development encroaches on natural areas — grew fastest in places with vegetation most sensitive to drought and most vulnerable to fire, Diffenbaug said.

Oregon is trying to address this challenge with a sweeping bill passed into law after a deluge of wildfires 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 forest and wildland, increasing wildfire risk. The bill also added funding for 20 new state fire marshal positions.

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

State officials are also creating a building code for future development in these areas that will require things like attic vents, fireproof roofing and fireproof 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 common sense fire safety, and in reality, many Oregonians are already doing this work or going well beyond this work to keep their homes safe” in these high-risk areas, said Oregon State Fire Marshal Assistant Director Chad Hawkins.

Grants will be available to homeowners who can’t afford to clean up their property, and once the mandates go into effect, the state will focus on education, not punishment, Hawkins said.

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

“After looking at this map, you guys have covered a lot of areas as the same designation and no one has ever come 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 2020 Obenchain fire.

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

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

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