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New wildfire maps display risk levels for Oregonians

A map of Oregon with various colors across the state, indicating each area's wildfire risk.
Oregon Department of Forestry
The new map shows the wildfire risk of tax lots throughout the state.

Residents of Oregon can now see how much their property is at-risk from wildfires. That’s because of a new state-sanctioned map produced by Oregon State University and the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Jefferson Public Radio’s Erik Neumann spoke with ODF Public Affairs Officer Derek Gasperini about the new wildfire risk map and what it means for people living in high-risk areas.

Erik Neumann: So, what's the idea behind these maps the state has created?

Derek Gasperini: So the idea, through Senate Bill 762, is to provide an information tool and an educational tool with some other pieces to it that allows everyone in the state to understand their risk related to wildfire, and then provide an opportunity and options for how to protect yourself or mitigate that risk from wildfire. So obviously, we've had more severe fire seasons over the last handful of years than in past, fire science is changing and Senate Bill 762 follows up on the governor's wildfire council recommendations on the post-2020 wildfire season, there was a lot of attention on how do we make some meaningful progress and updating this informational tool with a finer level of detail, assessing risk at a tax lot level so homeowners, renters, whomever, can access the homeowners report through Oregon Explorer and see what risk they have in relation to wildfire, where they live.

EN: So, what happens if you have a house that's now in an extreme or high risk category for wildfires?

DG: So, the designation of extreme or high risk in and of itself is just an understanding that you're at a higher higher risk of susceptibility to wildfire. If you are in a high or extreme risk area and also within the boundaries of the wildland urban interface, then under Senate Bill 762, there may be downstream effects you may have defensible space or home hardening requirements. Those are currently being passed by the Oregon state fire marshal and building codes division respectively, but that is on deck with, in Senate Bill 762. Again, that's just to provide guidance and understanding of what people need to do to protect themselves from wildfire.

EN: These are public maps. I've heard from some residents who are concerned that this could affect their home insurance rates. What would you tell people who have those kinds of concerns?

DG: I would first say that Senate Bill 762 does not identify anything regarding insurance rates. It is an understandable concern. And I would say through the rule making advisory committee process that the Department of Forestry and the Board of Forestry went through to get broad input on the generation of the map, it was identified of concerns for insurance. That has been raised to Oregon’s insurance commissioner. I am not aware of exactly what's going on there, but again, the focus of Senate Bill 762 was to identify and help folks understand how to mitigate risks rather than introducing risks.

EN: Some communities in rural Oregon or in Southern Oregon’s case, in areas like Josephine County, there are areas considered to be "under-protected" because they don't have taxpayer-funded fire districts. How could these kind of maps influence those communities?

DG: I'm not sure that there's direct influence for those communities for this map. I would say that Senate Bill 762 does require the Department of Forestry – and it's one of our next efforts to create – basically a structure for wildfire protection across Oregon boundaries, so that there is the requirement to establish minimum protection standards across Oregon.

EN: Will there be resources for helping residents reduce risk, like helping them create defensible space or make home hardening improvements?

DG: I would defer those to both [Building Codes Division] and Oregon state fire marshal's office. I can say that I do understand from Senate Bill 762 that the state fire marshal's office has a community risk reduction fund and a grant that they are providing for defensible space, for community risk reduction for prevention programs, for a wide variety of community risk reduction and to look to them for access to those funds.

EN: What's next now that these maps are out?

DG: What we hope is that Oregonians will access the map and access their homeowners report, understand what their risk is in their area. We hope that property owners that may lease, or rent their property, that they inform tenants, so that everyone understands their level of risk, and we can all be a little bit better prepared for future wildfire seasons.

EN: Thanks a lot Derek. I appreciate your time.

DG: Thank you, Erik, for having me on your program.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Erik Neumann is the interim news director at Jefferson Public Radio. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.