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Jackson County: State wildfire risk map deeply flawed

A wildfire risk map created and then withdrawn by the Oregon Department of Forestry places most of rural Jackson County in high and extreme fire risk categories.
Process doesn’t consider on-the-ground conditions

Jackson County commissioners said Tuesday a state effort to map wildfire risk is deeply flawed because it hasn’t taken into account the work property owners have done to reduce fire risk on their lands.

“It’s too fast. It’s too quick — and it’s going to create a crisis,” Jackson County Commissioner Colleen Roberts said of the effort to put out a map to meet state deadlines.

Oregon Department of Forestry, which was tasked with creating a map after the Oregon Legislature passed a wildfire preparedness bill in 2021, withdrew the map last week after being flooded with thousands of complaints. The map put large swaths of rural Southern, Central and Eastern Oregon in high to extreme risk categories, which some worry could prompt insurance companies to jack up rates or refuse to renew coverage.

ODF and Oregon State University, which created the map, plan to work on refinements to improve the accuracy of risk category assignments, Oregon State Forester Cal Mukumoto said when he announced the withdrawal of the map last week.

The creation of the map relied on satellite imagery, which couldn’t adequately capture conditions on the ground, according to Teresa Vonn, Rogue Valley Integrated Fire Plan coordinator for Jackson County.

She said the state didn’t actually create a risk map, which would take into account fuels reduction work, the creation of defensible space and other efforts on individual properties.

Instead, the state created what’s known in the field as a hazard map, Vonn said.

She compared the situation to driving a car, which comes with some inherent hazards. However, people can reduce their individual risk by taking steps such as wearing seat belts and driving cars with safety features like airbags.

“When we look at a hazard map, it just says, ‘OK. Here’s what’s out there.’ If you had a risk map, you’d actually say, ‘Here’s some fuels reduction things that you’ve done. Here’s defensible space that you’ve done.’ And so those show that you’re more protected from the hazard than if you hadn’t done those things. It’s a hazard map that they gave us, not a risk map,” Vonn said.

By not recognizing the work property owners do to reduce fire risk on their lands, the wildfire risk mapping process creates no incentive to carry out the work, said Jackson County Development Services Director Ted Zuk.

“It’s all stick and no carrot,” he said.

ODF has the unenviable job of creating a wildfire risk map covering 1.8 million tax lots statewide. ODF said deadlines imposed by the Oregon Legislature didn’t give it enough time to gather public input.

Jackson County Commissioner Dave Dotterrer said the legislation that included the wildfire risk map requirement was flawed, and the process to implement the new law is flawed.

The state is continuing to work on new homebuilding and defensible space regulations meant to help protect risky areas from fire.

Jackson County already has various building regulations in place regarding fire resilience.

County commissioners and staff plan to send comments to state officials detailing various concerns, and commissioners said they’ll reach out to local legislators.

State Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, helped champion the bill as a way for the state to prepare for the hotter, drier summers and increased wildfire risk that come with climate change. After the wildfire risk map was hit with widespread criticism, he said legislators who backed the bill wanted to act quickly and “correct as we go.”

Last week he said the map needs to be refined.

“I think this map needs work,” Golden said. “I think there are gaps in this map between what science tells us and what you see with your eyes when you walk around. And we’ve got to interface more with the insurance industry. ... We need to make sure people who are doing what they can to reduce their fire risk can get insurance.”

Roberts said she fears low-income residents and some senior citizens will be driven out of their homes by escalating insurance bills.

Like the commissioners, Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan said the legislation and implementation process is flawed. He said Gov. Kate Brown could instruct ODF to stop working on the process and call a special legislative session to fix issues with the bill.

Jordan said local residents do face the danger that some property owners don’t maintain their lands. County officials regularly field complaints about dangerous properties.

“There are some people who don’t take care of their property, and they do create a fire risk for others,” Jordan said.

County officials said the wildfire risk map first put out by ODF includes risk classifications that don’t seem to make sense based on local conditions and history.

The Bear Creek Greenway corridor that burned in the 2020 Almeda Fire isn’t classified at high or extreme risk because the fire reduced fuels.

However, the corridor remains a source of constant fire risk, including from homeless people who camp there and light illegal fires. Local governments are in a constant battle to control invasive blackberries and other flammable vegetation growing back along the path that stretches from Ashland to Central Point.

ODF also considers the area of northern Jackson County burned by the 2020 South Obenchain fire as “treated,” Jordan said.

ODF took into account the reduction of fuels in the fires’ aftermath, but doesn’t take into account fuels reduction work people do on their properties, Jordan said.

When county staff brought up those concerns, Jordan said, ODF responded that it’s not trying to create a “point-in-time” map.

ODF’s wildfire risk map generally lists urban areas in the no risk, low risk and moderate risk categories.

The Almeda Fire, the most destructive in Jackson County’s history, started in Ashland and burned nearly 2,500 homes and more than 170 business as it tore through Talent and Phoenix along the developed Highway 99 and I-5 corridors and the overgrown Bear Creek area. Firefighters stopped the fire on Medford’s southern outskirts.

The state saw 4,000 homes destroyed in 2020 after unseasonably hot September temperatures and strong winds fed urban and rural infernos.

The withdrawn wildfire risk map puts most of northwest Oregon, including the Willamette Valley, in the low risk category.

However, massive wildfires raged near Portland, Salem and Eugene during the disastrous 2020 fire season.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.