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Wildfire protection will cost you

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If you live in a wildland area, you may end up paying more for wildfire protection.

The Oregon Department of Forestry district covering Jackson and Josephine counties is reviewing land classifications on 1.9 million acres in its region to come up with a fairer annual assessment.

Some 6,000 Jackson County property owners will receive a letter around the end of the year alerting them that the classification of their property, whether it's grassland or forestland, is changing. The number of properties affected in Josephine County hasn't been determined yet.

“Once we put the letters in the mail, our phones are going to be ringing off the hook,” said Dave Larson, Southwest Oregon District forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

The money pays for 50 percent of the ODF district’s $7,540,848 budget for 2019, which helps pay for airplane and helicopter support to protect homes. Despite the horrendous smoke from 2018’s summer of fires, only three homes burned in the region, though a number of outbuildings were destroyed.

At minimum, a small property would pay $18.75 annually, but the same property with a house on it would pay $47.50 annually. Additional buildings on a property won’t result in any increased assessment.

Some properties that were inadvertently classified as grazing land, which would pay 93 cents an acre annually, may be changed to forestland, which requires $2.04 an acre. In some cases a property might be exempt, if it falls inside a city boundary.

ODF is relying on better aerial mapping to determine the new classifications on properties, and an ODF Forestland Classification Committee has been reviewing the changes to properties. It held a meeting Tuesday at the ODF district office on Table Rock Road in Central Point.

The per-acre amounts for the two classifications are likely to change, because if more properties are brought in under the more-expensive forestland classification, the amount per acre would be adjusted downward.

That’s because the per-acre changes will not result in an overall hike in the district’s budget, Larson said. Instead the changes will be spread across all the covered acres and slow the rate of increase landowners pay, unless the level of protection increases.

“This does not increase the district’s budget one dime,” Larson said.

Many property owners around the urban fringe of communities are required to pay the ODF fee, as well as any fees from their local fire districts.

In addition, some previously vacant properties now have a house on them, which would result in a higher fee.

The fees have remained relatively unchanged for years, though under the new classifications some properties will pay more and some less.

A landowner can opt out of paying the fees by providing a robust fire-protection plan that would have to be approved ODF. But landowners who opt out would not be paying into a state emergency fire cost fund, and all costs associated with fire protection would be the landowner’s responsibility.

If a landowner disputes the classification, they can appeal to Jackson County Circuit Court.

Before the new classifications and rates take effect, ODF will hold town halls in both counties and also hold public hearings.

The assessment should be reflected on the 2020 property tax statements.

ODF provides wildfire protection on private, county and state-owned forest and rangelands.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Fire retardant bombers and helicopters work a wildfire near Ashland. File Photo
Southwest District Forester Dave Larson of the Oregon Department of Forestry speaks with fire, forest and committee members about the Oregon Forestland-Urban Interface Fire Protection Act reclassification for Jackson and Josephine counties. Photo by Denise Baratta