News, Oregon, wildfire

State forester rescinds wildfire risk map in response to public, political outcry

On Thursday afternoon, just five weeks after publishing a wildfire risk map, the state Forestry Department axed it.

That move follows a chorus of complaints from Republican state lawmakers and residents in southern and eastern Oregon who said the roll out of the map was clumsily handled and led to people losing their property insurance or having premiums doubled. They said the Oregon Department of Forestry was ill-equipped to handle the impacts of the map in the middle of fire season. 

The latest criticism came Thursday, with a statement by state Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson, leader of the Oregon House Republicans Caucus. “State and federal land mismanagement are the driving force behind our wildfire issues, not private land, but these maps leave most of the burden on private land owners,” she said in a statement.

The state Senate Republican leader, Sen. Tim Knopp of Bend, said Thursday he asked Gov. Kate Brown to withdraw the map. “The growing outrage over high-risk classifications of primarily rural property threatens to overwhelm the Oregon Department of Forestry with thousands of appeals that the agency will be unable to handle,” Knopp said.

And unaffiliated gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson also called Thursday on the Forestry Department to withdraw it.

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Created by the department and Oregon State University, the Oregon Wildfire Risk Explorer map was part of a state push to protect Oregonians against wildfires. The searchable map showed the wildfire risk of 2 million tax lots across the state, categorizing them in five categories: no, low, moderate, high or extreme risk. About 80,000 property owners were found to be in high or extreme risk areas, and received letters from the Forestry Department telling them that they could be subject to fire-resistant building codes currently under development. 

The creation of the map was ordered under Senate Bill 762, which passed during the 2021 legislative session. It directed state agencies to undertake a slate of measures to prevent and respond to the growing threat of wildfires. 

But in the five weeks since the map was rolled out, it drew more ire than praise. 

On July 26, the state Department of Forestry canceled a community meeting in Grants Pass about the map in response to threats, switching to an online meeting the following day. 

More than 1,200 people attended that meeting, which went an hour-and-a-half longer than planned. Most of the attendees were upset about the risk assigned to their properties, according to Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford. 

“I listened to the whole thing, and there wasn’t anybody on there who was happy. Not one person said ‘this is a good idea,’” she said. Wallan and Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass; Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane; and Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale called on the Department of Forestry this week to pause the roll out.

“We want local input into the development of these maps,” Findley said. “They need to talk with planners (and) local fire agencies and people have to receive credit for the work they’ve already done for the hardening of their facilities.”

Cal Mukumoto, director of the Oregon Department of Forestry, said in a statement Thursday that the agency had heard from more than 2,000 people. He indicated the state rushed the map to meet a Legislature-mandated June 30 deadline, and did not allow enough time for local outreach and engagement that “people wanted, needed and deserved.” 

The Forestry Department has also withdrawn notices they sent to people in high and extreme risk areas. “We will immediately begin working with Oregon State University on some refinements to improve the accuracy of risk classification assignments based on what we’ve heard from property owners thus far,” Mukumoto’s statement said.

Uncertainty over insurance

Of the 2 million tax lots assessed, about 120,000 were in what’s called the wildland-urban interface – an area where wild vegetation transitions into areas with more human activity. About 80,000 people were found to be in the wildland-urban interface and at high or extreme wildfire risk. But the state also classified other areas as high or extreme risk that were not in the interface.

Findley said he and others thought only the wildland-urban interface areas would be assigned risk categories, not the entire state. 

People discovered that even though they didn’t live in the interface area they were in an extreme zone and their rates went up, Findley said.

One such person is Kevin Cassidy in Baker County near the Elkhorn Mountains. Last month, when his 20-year old property insurance policy was set to renew, he got a call from his insurance agent. The company would no longer be covering his property because it was in an area of extreme fire risk, according to the map. 

Cassidy was stunned when he got the call: He had no idea the map existed.

At a press conference during the map’s roll out, Doug Grafe, Gov. Kate Brown’s wildfire programs director, said he did not expect insurance rates to go up for Oregonians.

“First of all, the Oregon insurance market is currently very robust,” he said, adding that many of the more than 150 insurers in the state have done their own wildfire risk assessments.

That’s somewhat true, according to Lawton Lesueur, an insurance agent in Grants Pass.

“Most insurance companies years ago started their own fire mapping that was more robust and more accurate,” he said. “But the ones that aren’t can tag on and use this mapping.”

Lesueur said there was uncertainty about how insurers would react to the map. None of his clients had their policies dropped, but he said some could face higher premiums. 

A number of his clients called with concerns.

“The map sort of blanketed the entire area with extreme wildfire hazards, and a lot of people are confused,” he said.

During the last three years, he said it’s become increasingly difficult for people in more remote areas of southern Oregon to get coverage. Insurers have become more cautious and more aggressive in assigning fire risk scores. The map added to an already difficult insurance situation, he said.

“A few (clients) I can think of live in areas where, if I had to write a policy for them today, I don’t know if I could do it,” he said.

A broken appeals process 

Property owners were able to appeal their classification through ODF’s website, but Findley said he received complaints from constituents about issues with the webpage and that calls to the department for assistance went unanswered. He said many hadn’t heard back from department officials about their appeals.

“It’s inappropriate that the state rolled this out before they were ready to deal with it,” he said. 

He also took issue with the lack of input from the public before the map was unveiled. During the department’s public comment period, the map wasn’t ready, so the public couldn’t review it and suggest changes.  

In the last five weeks, 750 appeals were filed, according to Derek Gasperini, a spokesperson at the Forestry Department.

Since the map is being withdrawn, the current appeals process is being shut down. 

“We will be reviewing the information submitted and using it to identify any additional areas where we may need to take a closer look at the data,” Mukumoto said. But, he added, the development of fire-resistant building and landscaping codes will continue and will impact people who are found to be in an extreme or high risk zone in the wildland-urban interface on the next iteration of the map.

The Forestry Department and OSU will refine the map and bring an updated draft to communities for discussion and input. After that, it will be finalized and new notices will go out to property owners in the extreme and high risk areas. “We are in the process of developing a plan and timeline to complete these activities,” Mukumoto said, “including public engagement and outreach opportunities. We will share that publicly as soon as it is complete.”

The change comes too late for some

For Cassidy in Baker County, rescinding the map comes too late. After his policy wasn’t renewed, he found an insurance company who will cover him, but his premium has doubled to $2,400 a year as a result of the map’s risk designation. As for investing in hardening his property, he did that years ago.

He has fire-resistant, fiber cement siding on the house and composite fire resistant tiles on the roof. He’s surrounded by irrigated farm fields and has some timberland, but he’s been managing it for fire risk for years, and it’s in a riparian zone, in a river drainage area.

“I’ve already done the stuff,” he said about making the property more resilient.

“Is it possible for me to have a fire out here? Under the right conditions, there are a lot of places that are susceptible,” Cassidy said. “Is it extreme as it exists? No.”

Cassidy is not opposed to mapping fire risks. His day job is working on fire recovery efforts in the area. But he said no state official visited his property before the extreme risk designation was made. 

“I think it’s needed,” Cassidy said of the map. “I fully support it, as long as it’s thoughtful.”

This story originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle and is republished here under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. Read more stories at oregoncapitalchronicle.com.

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