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Threats lead to cancellation of fire risk map meetings

Oregon Department of Forestry received a threat of violence over meetings planned to discuss requirements meant to make the state safer from wildfire
The Oregon Wildfire Risk Explorer is designed to identify the wildland urban interface and wildfire risk at the property ownership level. It shows a comprehensive view of wildfire risk within Oregon, indicates local fire history, and offers additional resources. [Map from Oregon Explorer]

Threats of violence prompted state officials Tuesday to cancel a public meeting in Grants Pass addressing Oregon’s new fire risk map, while a meeting scheduled in Medford moved online.

“Shortly after we announced the meetings, there was a phone message in Grants Pass threatening violence,” said Derek Gasperini, public affairs officer for the Oregon Department of Forestry. “The police looked into it and considered it concerning, so we decided to cancel the meeting out of an abundance of caution.”

Gasperini declined to provide specifics about the type of violence that was threatened, based on advice from law enforcement.

“Because people involved in the meetings are members of the community, we have been asked to be vague about the details of the threat,” he said. “But we understand the public’s need for information, so we intend to return to the community as soon as we can.”

Wednesday’s information session, which was to have been held in the Medford library, now will be a virtual meeting. Anyone can attend the virtual session.

Wednesday’s virtual meeting will be held through Zoom from 7 to 8 p.m. Participants can join the meeting through this link: https://odf.zoom.us/j/97802419789.

“The safety of the communities we serve and our employees is our top priority. We want the opportunity to talk with people about their concerns and questions about the wildfire risk map, which is why we’re still hosting a virtual meeting Wednesday evening,” ODF said in a news advisory Tuesday.

The fire map, and meetings about it, were spurred by Senate Bill 762, which was passed in the wake of the deadly Labor Day fires in 2020.

The searchable map shows the wildfire risk of properties across the state. Anyone can plug in an address and see where the property falls on a risk spectrum. The map is a collaboration that involved ODF, the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon State University as part of SB 762. That bill, passed during the 2021 legislative session, ordered state agencies to undertake a slate of proactive measures to prevent and respond to the growing threat of wildfires.

Representatives from Oregon State University who produced the map based on rules adopted by the Board of Forestry will attend the information sessions and answer questions from the public.

State officials knew the new fire maps, along with new building codes and other measures that may be required of property owners in fire-prone areas, would be controversial, but they didn’t expect to be physically threatened.

“I think ODF understands the frustration and concern, but we never anticipated there would be threats of violence to our staff or the staff of OSU over the release of the map,” Gasperini said.

In spite of the threats, Gasperini said, ODF plans to reschedule the in-person meetings in southwest Oregon, possibly the week after next.

Property owners in the high and extreme risk areas of the new fire map have received written notice from ODF indicating their property’s risk class and whether it’s in the wildland-urban interface.

The notices say they may be subject to future defensible space or building code requirements and how to find information about those requirements.

The Wednesday information session will include a presentation about the map’s function and purpose, how wildfire risk is assessed and how property owners can appeal their assigned risk class. Time will be available to address questions from community members.

The wildland-urban interface and statewide wildfire risk map is available through the Oregon Explorer (https://tools.oregonexplorer.info/OE_HtmlViewer/index.html?viewer=wildfire).

ODF is offering a phone number people can call if they have questions about the map or the notices they have received: 503-945-7310.

Gasperini asked people who call to leave a message and have patience because the phone line is generating a lot of calls.

The Oregon State Fire Marshal announced Tuesday it will also be holding a series of town hall meetings related to SB 762. The agency is working on new defensible space code requirements.

The town hall meetings will talk about the 2022 Oregon Defensible Space Code, its development, timelines and upcoming opportunities for community input.

As part of that process, OSFM will host 17 community town hall sessions across Oregon beginning the week of Aug. 1. The first meetings will be in Southern Oregon.

  • Tuesday, Aug. 2: 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., at Ashland High School, 201 S. Mountain Ave.
  • Tuesday, Aug. 2: 5:30 to 7 p.m., at Hedrick Middle School, 1501 E. Jackson St., Medford
  • Wed., Aug. 3: 5:30 to 7 p.m., Grants Pass Performing Arts Center, 830 N.E. Ninth St.
  • Thursday, Aug. 4: 5:30 to 7 p.m., Roseburg Public Safety Building, Umpqua Room, 700 S.E. Douglas Ave.

The Building Codes Division will also adopt home-hardening building codes through a public process. Building codes will be adopted Oct. 1 and will be effective April 1. See BCD’s website (www.oregon.gov/bcd/Pages/index.aspx) for more information.

Visit Division of Financial Regulation (https://dfr.oregon.gov/insure/home/storm/Pages/wildfires.aspx) for information on insurance related to the wildfire risk map.

Reach Mail Tribune editor David Smigelski at 541-776-4484 or dsmigelski@rosebudmedia.com.