Last year in Oregon, the Columbia River Gorge burned as the result of a careless firework. Now, 1000 Friends of Oregon is trying to do something about catastrophic wildfires.
More than 107,000 homes in Oregon—worth $12.7 billion and representing 8 percent of the state’s housing supply—face high or very high risk of wildfire, according to 1000 Friends' recently released report, "A New Vision for Wildfire Planning: A Report on Land Use and Wildfires."
The 70-page report offers specific policy recommendations 1000 Friends hopes to see implemented during the 2019 legislative session, the group wrote in a press release Dec. 10.
“In recent years, every wildfire season seems to break records,” Russ Hoeflich, 1000 Friends of Oregon’s executive director said in the release. “We decided to delve into that. It will come as no surprise that there (are) two main culprits: climate change and increasing development in wildfire-prone areas.”
In the executive summary of the report, 1000 Friends identified six key points to wildfire policy change.
Map wildfire risk across Oregon
In an interactive map, the Oregon Department of Forestry highlights the fire potential and vulnerability various regions of the state face in terms of fire potential. In 2017, Bend showed higher risk of a wildfire.
Avoid development in high-risk areas
1000 Friends suggests that unless structures are related to farming or forestry, they should be kept away from areas prone to wildfire—including forestland, rangeland and the wild-urban interface. According to a study published by the U.S. Forest Service, 36 percent of all homes in Oregon are built in the WUI, with 80.4 percent of vacation homes in Oregon built in the WUI. 1000 Friends’ report said Oregon has one of the highest proportions of seasonal homes in the WUI in the U.S.
New development in the WUI—or an expansion of it—will up fire suppression costs, increase risk of fire and increase risk to property and lives, according to the 1000 Friends report.
Minimize structure in high risk areas to those necessary for farm and forest use
1000 Friends said that in high-risk areas, the state should not allow new non-farm and non-forest uses in places where those uses will increase wildfire risk.
Mitigate risks to existing and future developments where development cannot be avoided altogether
1000 Friends said in areas where lands were subdivided before the enactment of Oregon’s land use program or WUI lands inside urban growth boundaries that already contain homes, risks should be mitigated by establishing a statewide, enforceable set of fire standards.
“These new standards should be created by experts, with consideration of the highest possible safety standards to save lives and property,” 1000 Friends said in its report. “Development should be minimized, which can be done by establishing limits on density in high-risk areas.
“Where new dwellings are second homes, risk should be shifted to the property owner through insurance requirements and increased fire protection laws,” 1000 Friends continued.
Enforce laws and standards
According to 1000 Friends, the state should provide resources for local governments to enforce fire-related standards. 1000 Friends says the Oregon Forestland-Urban Interface Act—passed in 1997 mandating homeowners create fuel breaks around their property—is virtually unenforceable, and “new laws and regulations should be mandatory and contain suitable enforcement mechanisms.”
Don’t delay in search of perfect information
1000 Friends said acknowledging that information is changing, the state should utilize the best available data and provide frequent updates. Gov. Kate Brown is supposed to release an executive order for a wildfire study before the end of the year, 1000 Friends said.
“We hope to guide policymakers and the Land Conservation and Development Commission as they endeavor to keep Oregonians safe and address growing concerns about wildfires in Oregon,” Hoeflich said. “Federal, state, local budgets have been woefully inadequate to cover fire-fighting costs, not to mention the costs of lost lives, homes and businesses. We hope to see that change in 2019.”
A Federal Push
How wildfire protection plays out can sometimes get wrapped up in partisan wrangling—as evidenced by the current showdown by Oregon's congressional delegation in Washington, D.C.
Crooked River Ranch—an unincorporated community of about 5,000 people—lies northwest of Bend, right next to the canyon formed by the Crooked River. The canyon is part of a wilderness study area that could fall into Sen. Ron Wyden's (D-Ore.) Oregon Wilderness Act, which would establish some 200,000 acres of new and expanded wilderness and recreation areas in Oregon.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore, CD2) wants to protect Crooked River Ranch from becoming the next Paradise, Calif. A bill Walden drafted would redraw the boundaries of the wilderness study area and would allow a mechanized fire protection buffer area of about 600 acres.
Wyden wants Walden's bill to be included in his Wilderness Act—though Walden objects to his bill being included a package that creates new wilderness, according to Dec. 13 story in the Salem Statesman Journal.
As of now, both members of congress are engaged in a staring contest.
"It's really high stakes poker being played up in DC with Oregon's public lands," Erik Fernandez, wilderness program manager for Oregon Wild said in the Journal story. "It's something that will probably be decided in the next 24 or 48 hours."