‘People exploded’: Can Oregon’s wildfire plans survive the public?

By Adam Aton, Avery Ellfeldt | 07/05/2023 06:17 AM EDT

Oregon’s new plan for dealing with wildfires is mostly the same as the old plan. But the strategy for handling public reaction is much different.

The morning sun is tinted red by smoke from wildfires.

The morning sun is tinted red by smoke from wildfires near Eugene, Ore., on Sept. 15, 2020. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The last time Oregon tried mapping the state’s wildfire risk, government officials were forced to cancel a public hearing on the topic because the police couldn’t guarantee their safety.

“People exploded,” said state Sen. Jeff Golden, a Democrat from southern Oregon, where the danger of wildfire is among the greatest. “There was almost a massive revolt over this.”

Now, almost a year after the first map was withdrawn, Oregon is trying again to better understand which parts of the state are most vulnerable to wildfires and where new regulations might be necessary to better protect residents.


How well the second attempt goes could serve as a model — or a warning — for other states trying to get a handle on the real-life consequences of living on a warming planet.

“Reality is setting in,” said state Rep. Pam Marsh, a Democrat from southern Oregon. “People are frightened of what all of this means … for their property, for their livelihood, for their long-term ability to stay and work and own land in these highly threatened landscapes.”

Oregon’s new plan for dealing with wildfires is mostly the same as the old plan. But the strategy for handling the public is much different.

This time, Oregon residents and local politicians will have a greater hand in shaping the state’s wildfire map.

The first iteration was assembled by scientists and hazard analysts with most public input sought only after a draft was published — and after the state had begun notifying the most hazardous properties on the map to prepare for new regulations

Supporters hope a more transparent process will blunt further backlash. Even if there are potential pitfalls.

Some experts worry that subjecting a scientific tool to political influence could jeopardize the map’s integrity. And supporters concede that public outrage might be inevitable because any map that accurately portrays wildfire vulnerability will designate broad swaths of the state as hazardous.

Yet elected officials say the new process is critical to rebuild trust and win over the rural communities that ultimately will be responsible for implementing these wildfire policies.

“We’re taking a second go at this, with the understanding that the first go was a communications disaster, if we’re being honest,” Marsh said.

Widespread backlash

Oregon’s experience isn’t a unique one. As climate change fuels stronger fires and floods, policymakers across the country are discovering that adaptation — historically a rare oasis of bipartisanship — has the potential to elicit powerful blowback.

Flood map updates have triggered political brawls from New Orleans to New Jersey. Landslide maps throughout the country have been met with disbelief and been shelved. And across the West, rural communities worry that wildland building regulations could smother small towns that are already struggling to stay afloat.

“This is about trust as much as anything else,” said Polk County Commissioner Craig Pope, an Oregon Republican who strongly criticized the first wildfire mapping attempt.

Rural communities want to manage fire risk, he said. But people resent the state’s tightening restrictions on them when many see the greatest risk as coming from the government’s own poorly managed lands.

“The true rural and frontier areas of our state have heard a lot of lip service over the years, and then don’t see anything actually happen at a level that they can trust,” Pope said. “We’ve got folks that have watched tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of acres burn … that if we had a stronger policy about managing state-owned lands, we might not be in that same spot.”

Scientists say the public can make important contributions to hazard-mapping tools — up to a point.

On-the-ground experience helps refine data and computer modeling. And not every aspect of a hazard map is purely empirical. There is no scientific standard, for instance, on where exactly to set the threshold between low and moderate wildfire hazard, or between moderate and high.

The chief researcher behind Oregon’s wildfire map said public feedback has already helped improve how they model fire behavior across some of the state’s eastern pasturelands.

“We’re not trying to do this in a vacuum,” said Christopher Dunn, a researcher at Oregon State University who led the mapping team. State law will require eight public meetings for the next round of mapmaking, though Dunn said “we need a lot more.”

Nevertheless, the inputs to the wildfire map can only change so much, he said. And there’s a limit to how far officials can bend the lines between hazard thresholds without undermining the whole map.

“We do have this juncture going forward where we could sit down with all the cities and whoever, and let everyone turn the dials [on the model] and create more of a political map,” Dunn said.

But officials who lobby to change the map’s parameters ought to offer objective justifications, he said.

“Otherwise, we’re just playing games, and you don’t need a scientist to draw a political map — just let the politicians sit down and draw what they want,” Dunn added. “It sort of defeats the purpose.”

A tight deadline

Oregon’s ongoing push to map wildfire vulnerability follows a breakout of blazes that struck the state around Labor Day three years ago.

Afterward, state lawmakers passed a sweeping wildfire omnibus in 2021 to harden building codes, mandate so-called defensible space around structures and direct millions of dollars toward landscape work — efforts all based on mapping which areas are the most vulnerable. To help shape it, the state assembled a public advisory committee that spent dozens of hours debating the map’s parameters.

But many residents only learned about the mapping when they got a letter from the Oregon Department of Forestry saying their property had been deemed a high wildfire risk and would be subject to yet-to-be-determined regulations.

Some people complained that the map didn’t account for fire-prevention work they’d already done or that areas such as irrigated cropland were deemed high risk. Others were upset the state couldn’t even tell them what rules to follow. And although insurance companies did not use the state map, some residents nevertheless blamed it for their insurance getting more expensive or being dropped.

Golden, who carried the wildfire omnibus bill in the Oregon Senate, attributed some of the trouble to the one-year deadline that lawmakers set for producing a map. That time frame was too fast for meaningful public engagement.

“In retrospect, that was a big mistake,” said Golden, who added that he wished there had been time for local feedback. “A lot of people asked me to walk their property with them, and in many, many cases, I could not for the life of me explain why they’re classified high or extreme risk.”

The initial map’s one-year deadline was actually shorter than it seemed, Dunn said, because researchers needed the state to outline all the map’s criteria and definitions — a rulemaking process that ate up months.

Those final rules came in early June, Dunn said. The map was due June 30.

In the meantime, preliminary mapping work had already been underway by scientists at OSU, the forestry department and Pyrologix LLC, a Montana-based firm contracted to help run the fire modeling. In addition, there was input from “all of Oregon’s — and Washington’s — fire behavior analysts,” Dunn said.

Researchers refined base datasets about fuel distributions, elevation and fire behavior that they then fed into models to produce tens of thousands of simulations of burn probability and fire intensity.

With the state broken into 15 different climate zones, researchers further divided the state into 4-kilometer grids to model conditions throughout the fire season — over 200 simulations per grid square.

Then, researchers used an even finer-grained analysis of 100-foot squares to determine the average wildfire exposure of each structure in the state — more than two million in total.

“This is absolutely a compendium of all the fire behavior modeling experts that exist in this region of the country working together,” Dunn said.

The maps were finished and turned in three days before the law’s deadline, he said. The state had planned to start gathering public comment on them a few weeks later — but by then, homeowners had already started receiving letters telling them their property would be subject to new wildfire regulations.

About that time, the first public meeting was canceled after officials received a threatening voicemail.

The problem wasn’t the map’s accuracy, said Dunn, who defended the tool as robust and carefully tuned. Rather, he blamed the backlash on the public not understanding the map’s purpose: to illustrate the threat faced by broader communities — rather than by individual homeowners.

And a big reason for the misunderstanding was because the state didn’t do much to educate people beforehand, or afterward, except send out letters that read as a kind of punishment, he added.

“Most people can’t see their overall exposure,” Dunn said. “You just can’t stand at your property line and say, ‘I’m likely to experience fire at this probability.’ Nobody can do that; the only way you can do that is through [statistical] simulation.”

Don’t expect a very different map

The consensus among supporters, critics and experts is that Oregon’s next wildfire map likely will resemble the first — though with some different labels.

That’s because lawmakers largely left intact the methodology used to create the original map, and it’s still oriented around the same basic factors: climate, topography and vegetation.

Those are the main conditions that drive fire behavior and determine the likelihood of a fire igniting in the first place, Oregon Department of Forestry spokesperson Derek Gasperini said in an interview.

“I know there was confusion before, where folks were saying, ‘I’ve done all my defensible space; I’ve done all my home hardening. There’s no way a wildfire will reach my home,'” Gasperini said. “But that doesn’t change the hazard of a wildfire occurring in that environmental area.”

S.B. 80, the law passed last month in response to the public outcry over the first map, does make several alterations. Some of the most sweeping changes are in the map’s language.

On the original map, properties with hazard profiles in the top 90th percentile were categorized as high risk, and those in the top 97th percentile were categorized as extreme risk.

The new map does away with the term “risk” altogether, replacing it with “hazard.” And lawmakers consolidated the number of hazard categories by combining “high” and “extreme” into a single category.

“When we said your property is high risk or extreme risk, that set people off,” said Marsh. “So we’re trying to keep the value of the map … but make it more clear that we’re really looking at the landscape and [that] we need to understand what the areas of high hazard are.”

Some of the most important changes don’t appear on the map at all.

Before the next draft map is published, the Oregon Department of Forestry will hold eight meetings throughout the state with county officials and their staff to discuss local landscape characteristics. Then, after the draft maps are published, the state will solicit public feedback on them before finalizing them.

Lawmakers also set aside $350,000 for the forestry department to do more public communications and outreach, especially with property owners. And they directed $10 million to grants for retrofitting homes and making landscapes more resilient to fire.

So even if the next round of maps shows substantially the same thing, supporters say they hope the public will receive it better after education, outreach and a chance to help shape it.

‘This is everywhere’

The bill updating the maps cleared the Oregon Senate — which had otherwise been paralyzed by partisan divisions — on a 23-2 vote, and it also cleared the House with bipartisan support. It’s awaiting action from Gov. Tina Kotek (D).

But Pope, one of the officials who helps steer the Association of Oregon Counties’ legislative work, said the bipartisan votes paper over some deeper divisions.

“They’ll call it bipartisan, but it’s pretty split,” he said. “I’m a Republican, and I took some heat as a commissioner. … I had to struggle with my own people who said this is not a good deal for us.”

Pope responds that rural counties can’t afford to stand by: “It’s like, well, it’s going to happen — either you want to be at the table, or you don’t,” he continued.

Oregon’s problems are just one example of what’s happening nationwide, several people said, as the country debates whether to subsidize communities living in areas growing more hazardous under climate change.

“This is everywhere — this is Texas, this is Florida, this is the West,” said Dylan Kruse, vice president at Sustainable Northwest, an advocacy group.

So far, Oregon lawmakers have found ways to balance strong policy with addressing public concerns, he said. But that will only get harder as agencies move to the next steps.

“This is just to produce a map,” Kruse said of the two-year saga. “Let’s see what happens as we move forward and actually start talking about implementing policy.”

There’s a good reason, policymakers are learning, that it’s so tempting to repeat other state’s mistakes.

“When you’re a thousand miles away, I look at the Mississippi River Basin and see government assistance to rebuild in floodplains — I know that’s crazy. Why in the world would we do that?” Golden said.

But, he continued, “in my own backyard, when I’ve got neighbors or constituents who lost their homes and want to rebuild and want some assistance — it’s the same situation, but all of a sudden it doesn’t look as crazy.”