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Fire risk map brings heated response

Property owners are understandably concerned about a new fire risk map that some say is already affecting their fire insurance rates and availability. More than 1,200 of them logged into a Zoom meeting last week called by the state Department of Forestry to introduce the maps and explain how they will be used to implement legislation passed by the Legislature in the aftermath of the Almeda Fire and other blazes that devastated Oregon communities.

The meeting was moved from in-person to online. More on that in a moment.

But first, it’s important for everyone involved in this process to step back, cool off and let the process work the way it should.

The map, developed by ODF and Oregon State University, places every property in Oregon into a fire risk category.

Problems arise when properties are identified as being in a high or extreme risk zone, which could require the owner to abide by stricter building codes in the case of new construction, and create defensible space. One participant in the meeting said his insurance company had already declined to renew his coverage because of the map.

State Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, a sponsor of the bill, said he thinks the map needs work. State Reps. Kim Wallan, R-Medford, and Lily Miller, R-Grants Pass, sent a letter to Gov. Kate Brown’s office and ODF calling for the map to be revised.

Golden acknowledges that some properties that appear as high or extreme risk on the map don’t seem to fit those categories when viewed in person on the ground. Property owners who dispute the category they are placed in can appeal, but the deadline is Sept. 21, and new requirements — which haven’t been drawn up yet — are supposed to take effect at the beginning of 2023.

Another serious concern is that many properties are listed as extreme risk because they adjoin federal Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service timber land. But the state cannot require federal agencies to take measures to reduce the fire risk to private property next door.

The fire insurance issue is a major problem. Golden said no one should have their insurance canceled if they are working to make their property more fire-resistant. But the Legislature has not taken steps to protect homeowners from cancellation.

All of these concerns should be addressed — by emergency action in the Legislature if necessary. In the meantime, a few facts:

Many properties are legitimately at high or extreme risk of fire, and have been all along. They did not suddenly become more at risk because a new map says so.

Taking steps to reduce the potential damage from fire, such as installing fire-resistant siding and roofing or clearing brush and small trees to create defensible space, does not mean the property is no longer in a high or extreme risk zone. It just means there is a greater chance the property may survive a wildfire. Taking those steps protects you and your neighbors to the extent possible, which is what prompted lawmakers to pass the legislation.

But there are no guarantees.

A reader wrote us a letter explaining that his home is in an extreme risk area, something he’s known since he bought it 20 years ago, and he already maintains a defensible space around it. He writes, “A 100-foot fuel reduction area on a bunch of 10-plus-acre parcels won’t change the underlying climate, topography, and the vast majority of the flammable vegetation. It will only increase the chances that your house will survive a fire that comes through. Similar to how air bags won’t decrease the chances of encountering a drunk driver in an area with lots of all-night bars, but they will increase your chances of surviving that encounter.”

The writer asked to remain anonymous if we printed his full letter — something we don’t do as a matter of policy. He made the request because of threats that were made to state forestry officials in advance of the public meetings.

That’s why the meetings were moved online. Because some local residents apparently thought it was appropriate to threaten violence toward public officials trying to do their jobs.

That’s unacceptable.

The fact that public meetings are being held and the concerns discussed above are being addressed means the government is working as it should. The best way to protect your property rights is to show up and peacefully discuss your concerns, not threaten violence if you don’t get your way.