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’What we need mostly is money’

The Almeda fire leveled Bear Lake Estates in Phoenix. Dave Killen/The Oregonian
Wildfire bills debated in Salem

Wildfires and the housing crisis in Jackson County have fired up Salem lawmakers this session.

“The Legislature understands the need to invest in wildfire recovery,” said Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland.

Marsh has sponsored almost a dozen bills that target wildfire prevention, promote affordable housing and help hard-hit schools. She thinks there is sufficient momentum to pass them.

“What we need mostly is money,” she said. “The big test will be to see if we get the money to do the work on the ground.”

In particular, House Bill 3160 is a blueprint for wildfire suppression, but it will come with a hefty price tag, and Marsh expects debate over how much to invest in a long-range efforts to lessen the danger in the forests.

Other bills she’s proposed address the affordable housing crisis in Jackson County, worsened by the destruction of 2,500 residential units in the Almeda fire.

“In our case in Jackson County, housing is front and center,” Marsh said.

Marsh provided a synopsis of the bills she’s proposed that would have a direct impact on Southern Oregon.

HB 3160 would establish the Oregon Wildfire Preparedness and Community Protection Fund by placing a $10 surcharge on homeowner, commercial and fire policies, but not on rental, mobile home or auto policies.

The bill would generate an estimated $40 million annually.

Three agencies would share the funds, including 50% for the state Fire Marshal, 25% for the Oregon Department of Forestry and 25% to the Watershed Enhancement Board to provide grants for wildland restoration.

House bills 2571 and 2572 would provide a framework for increasing controlled burns in Oregon that would be modeled after other states that selectively burn millions of acres annually in the winter to help minimize wildfires in the summer.

HB 2571 would delve into barriers to overcome insurance and legal concerns about controlled burns.

HB 2572 would create a statewide certified burn manager program to help execute more controlled burns on private lands.

After a fire, property taxes are the last thing property owners want to think about as they try to rebuild.

House Bill 2341 would provide a proportional decrease in property taxes in the year following a disaster.

The Phoenix-Talent School District and other local school districts have been severely impacted by the Almeda fire.

House Bill 2630 would provide stable funding to the three school districts that have been the most impacted by the September 2020 fires.

More consumer protections for those working through insurance claims following the fires would be provided under House Bill 3272.

Under the bill, a homeowner would receive an estimate each time insurance is renewed as to the replacement cost for a structure.

The time to rebuild would be extended to three years, instead of two, and living expenses would be extended to three years.

Homeowners would also be allowed to rebuild or buy in a new location.

Outbuildings and other structures could be covered up to the policy limit, under the bill.

Marsh has sponsored four bills that address the housing crisis.

House Bill 2842 would provide grants and other assistance to help low-income families and landlords of low-income homes make repairs and safety upgrades.

In the past few months, work has begun to convert two motels in Jackson County — the Super 8 in Ashland and the Redwood Inn in Medford — into housing for fire survivors and homeless people.

House Bill 3261 would help ensure conversion of more hotels and motels into low-income housing. It would limit government restrictions on certain properties for emergency shelters or affordable housing.

Fire survivors have encountered obstacles in replacing manufactured homes.

House Bill 3218 would ensure manufactured home programs are accessible to wildfire survivors.

To make it easier to rebuild after a wildfire, House Bill 3219 would giver greater rights to owners of manufactured homes and clarifies the legal obligations of tenants and mobile home park owners.

Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, has backed Senate Bill 762, which proposes a number of changes to create more defensible space, adopt better construction standards to limit wildfire risk, decrease severity of wildfires with programs to reduce hazardous fuels, and create an Oregon Wildfire Workforce Corps for youths and young adults.

The bill would require $150 million from the state general fund.

Golden said his omnibus bill has been in the works for more than two years and deals with a variety of issues surrounding wildfires.

He said there are a lot of proposals in the bill that address air quality concerns including grants that would allow people to get air filter systems in houses and public places.

The bill also focuses on the creation of so-called fire adapted communities, which would require building materials and other steps that would make structures better able to deal with wildfires.

Golden said he anticipates several wildfire bills will get approved by the Legislature and Gov. Kate Brown, but he expects some consolidation of bills by the time the Legislature adjourns.

Golden also backed Senate Bill 282, which cleared the Senate last week, and it would extend the grace period for people who haven’t been able to keep up on their rent payments.

He said the federal government will be providing state’s with money to help with rent payments as a result of COVID-19.

“There is a real expectation that landlords should be made whole,” he said.

The bill has been crafted to align with federal requirements to help with secure the payments to landlords.

“If we don’t do it right, we could lose federal dollars,” Golden said.

Golden ran for office with a promise to tackle campaign finance reform, and he’s been backing Senate Bill 336, though a competing bill is making its way through the House.

He said he’s concerned the final version might not accomplish his goals.

“Will it be an even-handed bill or one structured to help the unions,” Golden said. “People don’t trust government. I think we will squander that trust if we pass a bill that favors unions.”

Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford, said she has an issue with Golden’s proposed bill to require defensible spaces around houses.

“Defensible isn’t free,” Wallan said. Government regulations already push up the cost of housing, and she said that more regulations could push those costs up even more.

Also, creating a defensible space could run afoul of land-use laws, particularly for lots that are close together.

“It’s not just the house in the woods that has to have defensible space,” Wallan said.

She said she has disagreed with Golden on how to effectively reduce the fire hazard in forests.

Instead of relying on ongoing funding from the state, Wallan said agreements need to be reached with timber companies to help clean up the forests while increasing logging operations to provide an incentive for them.

“Cleaning out the forests has to be self-sustaining,” she said.

Wallan said she supports many of the ideas in the wildfire bills that have been presented, though she has reservations.

“Some things that look simple are a lot more complicated when you scratch the surface,” she said.

She is concerned about HB 3160, which she doesn’t think provides enough clarity as to how the money will be spent, other than creating something of a slush fund for state agencies.

“It’s tough for me,” she said. “It’s also a tax. There are a lot of people who are not going to want to pay the surcharge.”

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