Wes Morgan is an enthusiastic supporter of the effort to protect rural Oregon homes from wildfires.
Morgan, who is chief of the Powder River Rural Fire Protection District, an all-volunteer agency with a station just outside Sumpter, has worked to reduce the risk of fire on his property among Sumpter Valley’s ponderosa pines.
It maintains a lush green lawn as an effective firebreak.
He prunes the pines to deprive the trees of a ladder that the flames could climb into the combustible crowns.
He stacks his firewood a safe distance from his house and makes sure needles and other tinder don’t accumulate on his roof.
Yet for all that, Morgan is troubled by the prospect of the state forcing landowners, including perhaps some of his neighbors, to take similar precautions or face legal action.
“There are a lot of people who need to do something” to protect their properties, Morgan said.
“But I have mixed feelings.”
His ambivalence stems from a law passed by the Oregon legislature in 2021.
Senate Bill 762 requires, among other things, that the state create a map indicating a wildfire danger level for each of Oregon’s 1.8 million tax lots. This map, which the Oregon Department of Forestry recently released in collaboration with Oregon State University, also shows the boundaries of what is known as the wilderness-urban interface – WUI – areas with houses located in or near forests or rangelands where forest fires are more likely.
Senate Bill 762 requires that the level of risk be based on local weather, climate, topography and vegetation, with the latter criteria determined by aerial data. Owners can appeal the classification if they feel it is inappropriate.
Properties that are both in the WUI and have a high or extreme wildfire risk rating (on a five-level scale that also includes no risk, low and moderate risk) could be held, under the Senate Bill 762, to create the same kind of defensible space that Morgan has around his house.
These owners may also have to comply with changes in building codes.
Morgan is not comfortable with the state mandating the types of work he has undertaken on his property.
But he is even more troubled by the process used by the Forestry Department.
In July, the agency sent letters to 250,000 to 300,000 landowners whose land is at high or extreme wildfire risk and if, as in Morgan’s case, the lot is also in WUI.
Morgan’s letter is dated July 21.
“I think that letter caught a lot of us off guard, including me,” Morgan said on Tuesday, August 2. “I think the state took the cart before the horse.”
He quotes the letter itself. It reads, in part: “You may need to take steps to create a defensible space around your home and meet changes to building code requirements. Both of these regulatory processes are still under development.
The problem, according to Morgan, is that he and tens of thousands of other owners are wondering what they might be required to do and when.
According to the Forest Department, the Oregon State Fire Marshal is working on defensible space requirements. The agency is expected to adopt them in December 2022 and enter into force in 2023.
The State Building Codes Division is responsible for the building code requirements listed in the letter to homeowners.
The agency is expected to adopt the codes on October 1, 2022 and they will come into effect on April 1, 2023.
Sumpter, the hardest hit part of Baker County
The entire community, which has approximately 212 residents and 500 homes, is both within the WUI and is at high or extreme wildfire risk. Sumper is, indeed, a town set in a second-growth ponderosa pine forest.
Kurt Clarke, chief of the Sumpter Volunteer Fire Department, said that to his knowledge, every property owner in Sumpter had received a version of the letter Morgan had received.
Clarke said he’s spoken with a few residents who wonder if, or how, the pending regulations under Senate 762 will affect them.
Others, he said, fear their home insurance policies will be voided because, according to the map, their homes are in a high or extreme fire risk area.
(Most of the city’s tax lots are rated high risk, with a few scattered lots in the extreme category.)
Like Morgan, Clarke promotes defensible space tactics such as pruning trees and clearing the ground of needles and branches.
He said firefighters and city officials are encouraging residents to take such precautions. Clarke thinks Sumpter has made progress over the years.
The city allows residents to bring yard debris onto city property where it can be safely burned, Clarke said.
“My citizens, I have to say, are very fire savvy,” he said.
Still, Clarke said he thinks it may be difficult for some homeowners to truly understand how devastating a wildfire can be if they haven’t personally experienced a disaster such as what happened in Paradise. , California, in 2018, or another northern California city. , Greenville, in 2021.
The camp fire destroyed 19,000 buildings and killed 85 people in Paradise. The Dixie Fire burned most homes and other buildings in Greenville, although there were no fatalities.
“Some people don’t think that’s going to happen,” Clarke said.
Elsewhere in Baker County
Besides Sumpter, the largest area in Baker County with properties located in the WUI with high or extreme fire danger is on the west side of Baker Valley.
This includes neighborhoods along and near Pine, Mill, Marble, Salmon, and Goodrich creeks, and parts of Washington Gulch.
Additionally, there are several properties along the base of the Sagebrush Foothills just southwest of Baker City that meet both criteria.
Other locations with scattered plots that could be affected by Senate Bill 762 include:
• Stices Gulch near Dooley Mountain Highway
• Rock Creek and Bulger Flat west of Haines
• Along Highway 7 near Denny Creek
• West and east edges of Pine Valley
Others worry about potential effects
Morgan’s concerns about Senate Bill 762 are far from uncommon.
The Forest Department has received about twice as many public comments opposed to wildfire hazard mapping as in favor, mostly from people who think WUI areas are too large, said Tim Holschbach, chief fire safety officer. agency fire prevention and policies.
Mike Shaw, chief of the Forestry Department’s fire protection division, said the agency would be in a “fish tank” of scrutiny due to Senate Bill 762 and its potential effects.
“The agency’s work is not finished. Work will continue throughout this year. We know we’re not going to be perfect,” Shaw said. “There will be adjustments in the future. It is an excellent first step. »
The Oregon Farm Bureau has been one of the most vocal groups concerned about the effects of the WUI wildfire hazard and boundary map.
The Farm Bureau criticized Senate Bill 762 for its “top-down” approach to reducing wildfire risk in rural areas.
However, the number of properties both in WUI and with high or extreme wildfire risk is lower than the Farm Bureau had expected.
According to the Forest Department, about 120,276 tax lots — 8% of the state’s total — meet both criteria, but about 80,000 of them have a home or other structure that could be subject to the space. defensible or building code regulations.
Barns and other outbuildings are exempt from the requirements.
However, Lauren Smith, director of government and national affairs for the Farm Bureau, said she’s worried the state may end that exemption in the future.
“We’re still going to be uncomfortable because we’ll have properties that fall into this high and extreme risk WUI,” Smith said.
Threat prompts cancellation of public meeting
The Forestry Department has scheduled a series of five community meetings to explain the purpose of the new map and the risk ratings.
The first meeting, scheduled for July 26 at Grants Pass, was canceled after the Forest Department received a phone message “threatening violence,” said Derek Gasperini, the agency’s public affairs officer.
The only meeting in Eastern Oregon was on Tuesday evening, August 2, at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande.
Capital Press’ Mateusz Perkowski contributed to this story.
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