Oregon’s wildfire risk map emerges as new climate flashpoint
A new Oregon map assessing the wildfire risk of every tax lot in the state — nearly 80,000 buildings labeled as high-risk — generated so much backlash from angry homeowners that officials abruptly withdrew it, saying they didn’t do enough local outreach before announcing it. ambitious project.
The rapid turnaround, announced late Thursday, ended weeks of mounting frustration in mostly rural areas as the map emerged as another 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 issues with the hazard designations assigned by the Oregon Explorer project and said climate scientists would refine the map and release a new version at a later date. would reissue.
The map was part of a $220 million bill passed last year to prepare Oregon for worsening climate change-induced wildfires.
“While we met the bill’s initial deadline for delivery on the map, there wasn’t enough time to enable the kind of local outreach and engagement people wanted, needed, and deserved,” wrote Mukumoto, reiterating that Oregon was on a critical point. moment with wildfires and must take bold action. “We know how important it is to get this right.”
Fierce opposition bubbled up at community rallies ahead of the state’s step back. Residents and some local officials feared this would lead to increases in insurance rates or loss of coverage, while others were brimming with new defensible space mandates and rules for future construction stemming from the map designations.
An information session in the conservative southwest corner of the state was canceled after someone threatened violence.
“I’m sitting here now where I look out over hundreds of acres that are irrigated, they’re green all year round, yet they fall into the ‘high’ or ‘extreme’ risk category. They never caught fire,” Brandon said. Larsen, who spoke at a session moved online in Medford.
“This is more about evangelizing about climate change than about actually protecting people from the risks that exist.”
The Oregon Department of Forestry, which created the risk map with experts from Oregon State University, said the fire policies triggered by the first map are aimed at preventing more catastrophic wildfires — not making life harder for homeowners.
“A lot of the comments we’ve received and a lot of the concerns are there: ‘I’ve already done what I can in my house, so I should be at a lower risk.’ This is not a risk assessment of that defensible space,” said Derek Gasperini, a spokesman for the agency, before the map was revoked.
“The map is the risk of wildfires and there are certain things that you just can’t control. 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 more common for homeowners, and even those maps will need to be updated regularly 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 US West is in the so-called wildland-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 attempting to meet that challenge with a sweeping bill passed into law after a September 2020 firestorm barrage in Oregon that burned more than 1 million acres and destroyed 4,000 homes, many in rural areas. areas.
In addition to assigning one of five wildfire risk levels, the legislation has updated and refined the state’s 25-year-old “wildland-urban interface” map that identifies areas where development adjoins forests and wildlands, reducing the risk of wildfires. increases. The bill also added funding for 20 new state fire chief positions.
Starting next year, property owners on tax lots classified as “high” or “extreme” risk and also fall within the updated wildland-urban interface must meet minimum defensible space requirements. Those requirements, which are still being decided upon, may include cutting down tree branches less than two feet from the ground, clearing up to 30 feet from the house, and removing trees and branches hanging over roofs and chimneys.
State officials are also establishing a building code for future development in these areas that requires things like attic ventilation, fire-rated roofing, and fire-rated 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, Oregon State Firefighter’s Assistant Chief Deputy Chad Hawkins said.
Grants will be available to homeowners who can’t afford to clear out around their property, and when the mandates first come into effect, the state will focus on education, not sanctions, Hawkins said.
Still, many homeowners are wary of the card project and concerned about their insurance coverage and property value.
“After looking at this map, you covered a lot of areas with the same designation and no one ever came to our house to point us, high, low or whatever,” Sherry Roberts said of the first draft of the map. Roberts said she had been evacuated, but her irrigated farm survived the massive Obenchain fire in southern Oregon 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 much better cards. They’re not just going to believe the state’s word on the cards,” said Michael Wara, director of the Climate Energy Policy Program at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment.
Forest fires disproportionately affect the poor
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