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County commissioners want fire map fixed

State says insurers not using fire risk map to raise rates
A wildfire risk map created and then withdrawn by the Oregon Department of Forestry places most of rural Jackson County in high and extreme fire risk categories.

Jackson County commissioners have sent a letter to state officials asking for a reassessment and fixes to the wildfire risk mapping process that placed large numbers of properties in high or extreme fire risk categories.

Meanwhile, Oregon Division of Financial Regulation announced insurance companies aren’t using and have no plans to use the map to set insurance rates or to decide whether to provide coverage.

Some property owners have said their insurance rates went up or they had their coverage canceled after the release of the wildfire risk map, which put large swaths of rural Southern, Central and Eastern Oregon into high and extreme risk categories.

Oregon Department of Forestry, which was tasked with creating the map after the Oregon Legislature passed a wildfire preparedness bill in 2021, withdrew the map earlier this month after being flooded with thousands of complaints.

ODF and Oregon State University, which worked on the map, plan to work on refinements to improve the accuracy of risk category assignments, ODF said.

The state is moving forward with new fire-resistant building codes that could impact at-risk property.

Jackson County commissioners said in their letter that although the risk map has been pulled back, they are concerned the process to reestablish the mapping will again be done without local review or public input, which they said is unacceptable.

Created using satellite imagery, the mapping process didn’t collect local input or take into account on-the-ground work individual property owners have done to reduce fire risk on their land, county officials have said.

“Actions consisting of anything less than full-stop pausing, pulling back and reassessing the current division of responsibilities and moving to correct the problems already making themselves noteworthy, can only be perceived by citizens as pure arrogance by the state of Oregon,” said the letter written by Jackson County Commissioner Colleen Roberts and signed by her and commissioners Dave Dotterrer and Rick Dyer.

Commissioners said “the effort regarding the creation of a wildfire risk map is a complete and total failure.”

Commissioners said OSU used an aggressive fuel model calculation. Problems included putting hundreds of irrigated farms, fields and meadows in the high and extreme risk categories.

They said the online appeals process also was a failure, with reports of website crashes, broken links, phone calls going to voicemail, calls not returned and questions going unanswered.

Commissioners said at the very least the mapping process needs to be revised to include local landowners, fire agencies and governments to review each site and develop an accurate mapping method that reflects efforts by homeowners to reduce their fire risk.

They also called on the state to reach out to the insurance industry.

“The state of Oregon has an immediate obligation on behalf of its citizens to inform insurance companies that the wildfire risk map was not designed to affect insurance classifications, ratings or actuarial use,” commissioners said.

Commissioners voted Thursday to email the letter to Gov. Kate Brown, all members of the Oregon Legislature and the Association of Oregon Counties.

Oregon Division of Financial Regulation issued a Friday news release and posted information on its website that said insurance companies are not using and have no plans to use the state wildfire risk map in their decision-making.

It’s not clear whether the agency made the move in response to Jackson County commissioners or because of statewide concerns about insurance impacts.

In the news release, the agency said during informal talks before the map was released that insurers told the agency they were not planning on using the map.

Once the public raised concerns about the map, the agency put out a formal data call to all relevant insurers doing business in Oregon to confirm they were not using or planning to use the map to set rates, or to determine the risk of offering or renewing insurance, the agency said.

All the insurers responded they don’t use the map and have no plans to use the map for that work. Additionally, the agency hasn’t received any new proposed rate filings that include the map as a rating factor, the agency said.

The agency doesn’t set rates, but it does review rate proposals to make sure they comply with laws.

“This confirms what we knew: Insurance companies are not using the state wildfire risk map,” Oregon Insurance Commissioner Andrew Stolfi said in the news release.

“Insurance companies have been using their own risk maps and other robust risk management tools to assess wildfire risk for years in making rating and underwriting decisions,” he said. “We believe there has been confusion between decisions based on insurers’ continued use of their own tools, including their own risk maps, and the discussions on the new state wildfire risk map. We encourage insurers and agents to be careful in how they describe underwriting and rating decisions.”

Underwriting is the process an insurance company uses to determine the risk of offering or renewing insurance for a customer.

“We are here to protect consumers from any misinformation and welcome any documentation consumers have from insurance companies identifying that the map was used to influence underwriting or rating decisions. We also encourage homeowners to contact our consumer advocates with questions or concerns about changes to their policy,” Stolfi said.

The agency issued a bulletin informing insurance agents that no insurers are using the state wildfire risk map for rate or coverage decisions.

They could face a $10,000 civil fine per violation for falsely blaming rate and coverage decisions on the map, the agency warned.

“The unfortunate reality is that wildfire risk has increased in Oregon, especially over the past few years, and companies are responding to that,” Stolfi said. “One option for people who are ... nonrenewed is to work with an insurance agent, who can help you find a policy that fits your needs. There are nearly 150 companies offering homeowners insurance in Oregon, so we encourage those affected by wildfire risk to search across several different companies and to contact our consumer advocates if they need help.”

Consumers who want assistance or who have concerns about changes in their policy can contact the Oregon Division of Financial Regulation’s consumer advocacy hotline at 888-877-4894. They can also file a complaint online at dfr.oregon.gov.

The agency has issued a new online homeowners’ insurance guide at dfr.oregon.gov/insure/home/Documents/5794-homeowner-rate-guide.pdf. The guide covers insurance terms and helps people better understand how insurance companies set their rates and determine whether to offer or renew insurance policies.

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