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Oregon’s Big Wildfire Bill Seeing More Pushback Than Democrats Expected

Wildfire smoke turns the sky orange at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Sept. 8, 2020. Unprecedented wildfire conditions across Oregon and the American West kicked up several fires over Labor Day weekend last year.
Bradley W. Parks
Wildfire smoke turns the sky orange at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Sept. 8, 2020. Unprecedented wildfire conditions across Oregon and the American West kicked up several fires over Labor Day weekend last year.

Democrats in control of Oregon's legislature express surprise, frustration over Republican opposition to this year's big wildfire bill.

As wildfires begin popping up across Oregon’s landscape and lawmakers in Salem rush to pass critical legislation in the waning days of the 2021 session, this year’s big bill aiming to address wildfire mitigation and carve out nearly $200 million in funding for new programs is seeing more pushback than Democrats in control of both chambers had previously thought.

Senate Bill 762 would establish more than a dozen new programs seeking to mitigate wildfire, bolster recovery, help communities manage smoky conditions, and implement changes to the state’s building code for the development of structures within high-risk areas of the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI). It would direct the state to establish comprehensive wildfire risk maps which would be used to help implement changes to state law and building codes by prioritizing certain communities and areas most likely to be affected.

It’s the follow-up bill to work completed nearly two years ago by Gov. Kate Brown’s Council on Wildfire which submitted recommendations for changing state law and implementing new programs for lawmakers to take up in a bill during the 2020 short session. Republican walkouts over climate legislation killed that bill.

Now lawmakers are seeking to pass much of those same provisions in SB 762 with a few extras.

But during a committee hearing on the bill Monday morning, Republican leaders from both the House and Senate called the bill “terrible,” saying that definitions within the legislation regarding what type of property constitutes being within the wildland-urban interface are overly broad and that the implementation of defensible space measures goes too far in restricting how rural Oregonians develop their homes and property.

Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Stayton, said he fears that changes to Oregon’s building code would create added expenses for people looking to develop property in forested areas. He points to the vast number of households in his district encompassing the Santiam Canyon, many who are still in the process of rebuilding their homes following widespread damage caused by the Beachie Creek Fire of Labor Day 2020.

According to Girod, fewer than 25% of households in his district that have applied for permits to rebuild their homes following the 2020 fires have received the greenlight, and passing SB 762 would only add more red tape to the process.

“This bill I would rate as the worst bill of the session. I think most of the support will be from people who live in urban centers,” Girod said. “Every obstacle known to God and man is put before these people so they can’t rebuild, and this is going to be another one.”

House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, said her issues with SB 762 stem from concerns over the process.

“I recognize people are telling me (this bill) has been years in the making — that was not a public process,” Drazan said. “I don’t know who was in the room for that, but they weren’t elected people that are sitting here today that have the opportunity to vote on this measure.”

Drazan told her colleagues that the bill has some good pieces and “very troubling” pieces, but her biggest hang up surrounds what she feels is a lack of public input.

“One public hearing in this session in part of this body, and then a fully crafted piece of legislation in front of us today that lacks substantial input, is the wrong place to start,” she said.

Opposition to the bill came as news to Democrats who have worked on the bill and negotiated with Republicans in an effort to garner bipartisan support.

Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, has led the charge on SB 762 for Democrats in the Senate this session. He’s been a staunch advocate of providing new solutions and adequate funding for state agencies to begin the work laid out in the recommendations from the Governor’s Council on Wildfire.

According to Golden, he was somewhat shocked by the pushback the bill is beginning to see. He said that comments made by his Republican colleagues in the committee hearing Monday neglected to consider that there will be an extensive public input effort attached to rulemaking that would result from the bill’s passage.

“It’s been clear for a while that we weren’t headed to a unanimous vote, but I was surprised by the heat I heard in today’s meeting. I think it comes out of an effort to stir up fears that the bill will allow some kind of assault on rural lands way beyond preventing and fighting these disastrous wildfires,” Golden said. “That’s flat untrue… . SB 762 creates the framework for the rule-making that balances citizen rights, community needs and the imperative of saving Oregon from destruction. The people affected will have a strong and effective voice all along the way.”

Golden noted that in negotiating the bill, Republicans were able to add provisions to SB 762 that he felt were major concessions to get it to a place where everyone could give their support.

Some of those concessions include things like updating the number of wildfire risk categories from just three, up to five. Another creates an appeal process for property owners who feel their property was improperly mapped in the risk assessment or that they’re being improperly regulated.

Perhaps one of the most notable additions to the bill that Republicans fought for was an explicit prohibition on using the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s defensible space rules for purposes of regulating land use within the bill.

According to Golden, the bill included amended language on restricting land use decisions the state could make in setting rules on defensible space.

Golden also said that the Wildfire Programs Advisory Council — a new commission created by the bill which will be instrumental in monitoring and correcting the course of these programs — was added to address the concerns of Republican lawmakers.

“When they didn’t like the composition of that Council, we changed it to include multiple members that they wanted,” Golden said. “The rhetoric I heard today gets me puzzled over the value of negotiating with this bill’s opponents. After amending SB 762 to include some of their high-priority suggestions, the pushback seems like it’s stronger than when negotiations started. I kind of expected the needle to move the other way.”

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-North Portland, said she felt frustrated by some of the concerns her Republican colleagues expressed during the committee hearing Monday and that many of their grievances were either based in misinformation or false equivalencies.

“I think where people are getting confused is they’re assuming any structure that is in a rural area will somehow have all these new requirements imposed on them, and that’s just not true,” Kotek said. “What I’m frustrated with is this sense that nobody listened and nobody had input — that’s not true. There was a lot of input on this bill, it’s been two to three years in the making to get to this general framework.”

Republicans weren’t the only ones to criticize the bill. Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, said she shares many of the concerns outlined by Republicans, specifically echoing that the definition of wildland-urban interface is overly broad.

SB 762 passed out of the joint ways and means subcommittee on a 6-4 vote and now heads to the full committee for another hearing in a meeting scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.