Oregon wildfire risk map emerges as new climate flashpoint

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A new map in Oregon that ranked the wildfire risk of every tax lot in the state — labeling nearly 80,000 structures as high risk — drew so much backlash from angry homeowners that officials abruptly withdrew it, saying they had no done a lot of local publicity before publicizing the ambitious project.

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

Oregon State Ranger Cal Mukumoto said in a statement that his agency received specific feedback from 2,000 residents about issues with the risk designations assigned by the Oregon Explorer project and said climate scientists would refine the map and re-release a new version. posteriorly.

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

“While we met the bill’s initial deadline to deliver the map, there wasn’t enough time to allow for the kind of outreach and local involvement that people wanted, needed, and deserved,” wrote Mukumoto, who reiterated that Oregon is at an critical moment. conjuncture with forest fires and needs to take bold measures. “We know how important it is to get this right.”

Fierce opposition bubbled up at community meetings before the state’s backlash. Residents and some local officials feared this would lead to increases in insurance rates or loss of coverage, while others were restricted to new mandates for defensible space and rules for future construction that flow from the map designations.

A briefing in the state’s conservative southwest corner was canceled after someone threatened violence.

“I’m sitting in a place here now where I’m looking at several hundred acres that are irrigated, are green year-round and are still in the ‘high’ or ‘extreme’ risk category. They will never burn,” said Brandon Larsen, who spoke during a session that was uploaded online in Medford.

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

The Oregon Department of Forestry, which created the hazard map with experts from Oregon State University, said the fire policies triggered by the initial 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 concern are, ‘I’ve done what I can in my house, so I should take less risk.’ This is not a risk assessment of that defensible space,” said Derek Gasperini, a spokesman for the agency, before the map was taken down.

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

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

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

Meanwhile, the population of the western US at the so-called urban-forest interface — the border where development encroaches on natural areas — has grown faster in places with vegetation more sensitive to drought and more vulnerable to fire, Diffenbaug said.

Oregon is trying to meet that challenge with a sweeping bill that was voted on after a spate of firestorms 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 “wild-urban interface” map, which identifies areas where development borders forests and wilderness, increasing the risk of forest fires. The bill also added funding for 20 new state fire marshal positions.

Starting next year, owners of designated “high” or “extreme” risk tax lots that also fall under the updated urban-forest interface must meet minimum defensible space requirements. These requirements, which are still being decided, could include things like cutting tree branches less than six feet off the ground, cleaning up to 100 feet of the house, and removing trees and branches that hang from 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 roofs, and fire-resistant coatings for any building that requires a permit. Existing houses do not need to be altered.

Those provisions remain the same despite Thursday’s action.

“I call this common sense fire safety, and in all reality, many Oregonians are already doing this work or going far beyond this work to keep their homes safe” in these high-risk areas, the deputy chief said. Oregon State assistant Chad Hawkins. Fire Marshal.

The subsidies will be available to homeowners who can’t afford to clean around their property, and when the mandates go into effect, the state will focus on education, not penalties, Hawkins said.

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

“After looking at this map, you guys covered a lot of areas with the same designation and no one came 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 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 maps. They’re not just going to 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.


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