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Sen. Golden addresses wildfire risk map fallout and next steps

 An old man stands at a podium inside a meeting room, he's looking off screen and pondering
Roman Battaglia
JPR News
State Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, listens to a constituent during a Jacksonville town hall.

In Jacksonville Tuesday night, Oregon State Senator Jeff Golden answered questions about what’s next after the botched rollout of the state wildfire risk map this summer.

Over 100 residents packed in the Jacksonville city hall to express their concerns and opinions on what should come next for wildfire prevention policy in Oregon.

Tensions were high, with some residents chiding others for not doing enough to prevent wildfires on their property. Many worried about the potential for rising insurance premiums or not being able to find coverage at all.

For now, the plan is to work with private insurance companies and demonstrate that Oregonians are taking steps to mitigate wildfire risk, said Golden, who championed the 2021 legislation. But, he said, that might not be enough to keep companies from leaving the state.

“We may have to think about public insurance. And actually we have that right now, I mentioned the FAIR program," Golden said. "But it’s not funded at a level that gives you a policy that’s as good as you have now.”

Another concern was about requiring utility operators to mitigate wildfire risk. Medford resident Lynda Feld-Quartemont said she worried utility providers will pass the costs of wildfire mitigation onto consumers. But, according to Golden, if companies want to raise their rates they'd first need to get approval from the Oregon Public Utility Commission, which may or may not approve an increase.

Golden agreed the rollout of the state wildfire risk map was unsuccessful, and said he’s committed to ensuring the future of wildfire prevention in Oregon is guided by the public.

“This program will fail if it doesn’t have a high level of public support," he said. "That doesn’t mean everybody loves what we’re doing, that doesn’t happen with any legislation. But this is something the government can’t solve on its own. It’s too big.”

Golden said he believes the updated wildfire risk map will focus on regions of wildfire risk, rather than individually identifying homes. He’s hoping to see a draft version of that map in March. Finalizing it could take the rest of the year.

He said the future of the legislature’s wildfire preparedness plan will focus more on collaboration and incentives for homeowners rather than forcing them to make changes through regulation.

Golden said finding a path forward will require everyone to work together, including homeowners, state lawmakers and federal forest managers.

Roman Battaglia is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the JPR newsroom.