Oregon State Forester withdraws wildfire risk map amid controversy
A new wildfire risk assessment map was withdrawn last week following lawmaker pressure to recall the map and restart the map development process.
Oregon State Forester Cal Mukumoto announced the decision in a bulletin released Thursday afternoon.
"We posted a wildfire risk map on the Oregon Explorer on June 30 and sent notifications to property owners in the extreme and high risk classifications shortly after," Mukumoto stated. "In response to input received since posting, we have decided to remove the current iteration of the wildfire risk map from the Oregon Explorer and withdraw the notices sent. We will immediately begin working with Oregon State University on some refinements to improve the accuracy of risk classification assignments based on what we've heard from property owners thus far."
The announcement came during the same week that Sen. Lynn Findley (R-Vale), who will represent Crook County after redistricting takes effect next year, and Rep. Mark Owens (R-Crane) released a two-page statement citing "serious errors in the Oregon Department of Forestry's roll-out of the Wildland Urban Interface and Wildfire Risk Assessment" and "serious issues in the map creation, lack of transparency and abuse of process."
"The intent behind Senate Bill 762 was to mitigate future significant loss, lack of preparedness and financial hardship in future wildfires, among many other things," said Findley who points out that he has more than 32 years' experience in Fire and Aviation management. "Oregonians have been handed anything but that through the new map. Pulling back the maps and pausing the process has had executive level and bipartisan legislative level support. The Oregon Department of Forestry had a chance to restart the process and blatantly chose not to do so."
Rep. Owens added, "The map as it stands has no credibility and the Oregon Department of Forestry needs to take ownership and leadership and reevaluate immediately. This map serves as an ill-informed, unreviewed, and dangerous and divisive product pitting homeowners against the state of Oregon."
The two legislators mentioned several concerns in their statement on the risk assessment maps. First, was concern that the legislation lacked a clear definition of the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) and a Wildfire Risk Assessment.
"These were sticking points in the passage of the bill and ultimately settled on the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) working with a group to complete the definition effort in a timely manner and OSU completing the Risk Map," they wrote. "It is our understanding the effort was completed on time, however, several members of the definition group felt railroaded and silenced and did not agree with the final results. In the final rulemaking, over 35 pages of text was stricken down to a mere one sentence."
Second, the lawmakers believe creation of a Wildfire Risk Map "is a complete and total failure." They point out that the map was produced by Oregon State University (OSU) and ODF and enacted as the final map without any local review.
"During the brief and quietly publicized public comment period, there was nothing on which to comment — the map was not ready," they stated.
Another concern raised is that this map utilizes tax lots as the basis for identification. The lawmakers point out that the intent of SB 762 was to further identify risk within the WUI but note that the map produced was a statewide map with no delineation for WUI nor any exclusion of non-WUI tax lots.
"There are hundreds, if not thousands, of tax lots outside the WUI that are now classified as extreme or high risk," they wrote. "This is a major problem for homeowners as insurers will most certainly raise rates, or as we have heard from our constituents, threaten outright policy cancellations. In addition, Oregon State University personnel has used a fuel model for the calculation that was very aggressive, which only complicates matters. There are hundreds of irrigated farm fields and meadows now classified as high and extreme risk.
Lastly, Findley and Owens criticized the online appeal process provided. They believe that such an option was not adequate given the "enormous shortcomings and implications" of the map.
"The online appeals process does not even work," they stated. "The website crashes, links are broken, the phone number goes to a voicemail, calls aren't returned, and questions go unanswered."
Mukumoto noted in his statement that SB 762 provided a narrow window to complete the map.
"We knew the first iteration of an undertaking of this scale and complexity wouldn't be perfect," he stated, "but we have been and continue to be committed to improving the map and our processes related to it."
The state forester said that ODF has solicited and collected questions, concerns and other input since the statewide wildfire risk map was released just over a month ago. The agency has also received specific feedback from nearly 2,000 Oregonians that Mukumoto said has helped ODF understand the key areas of concern related to risk classification.
"While we met the bill's initial deadline for delivering on the map, there wasn't enough time to allow for the type of local outreach and engagement that people wanted, needed and deserved," Mukumoto stated. "Once this round of refinements is complete, we are planning to bring a draft of the updated map to communities for discussion and input. After another round of revisions based on local input, the map will be finalized. We will then post an updated map on the Oregon Explorer and issue new notices to property owners in the extreme and high risk classifications, which will start a new appeal period. We are in the process of developing a plan and timeline to complete these activities, including public engagement and outreach opportunities. We will share that publicly as soon as it is complete."
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