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Regional Interests

Oregon takes an ambitious swing at addressing wildfire with proposed $190 million investment

A view of the Joseph Canyon fire on June 5, 2021.
A view of the Joseph Canyon fire on June 5, 2021.

Following a deal cut on Thursday evening to gain bipartisan support for the omnibus wildfire bill being considered by Oregon’s Legislature, lawmakers in the Senate approved the measure by a wide margin on Friday.

With the threat of temperatures soaring into the triple digits this weekend and burn bans in place throughout the state, Senators debated the bill for more than an hour before voting 22-7 in favor.

After realizing they had a considerable amount of work left and deciding to adjourn Friday evening, House members returned on Saturday to take up their last bit of business. Representatives also held substantive debate lasting more than an hour before passing Senate Bill 762 49-6.

The bill establishes more than a dozen new programs to fight and mitigate wildfire, bolster recovery, help communities adapt to smoke, and implement changes to the state’s building code for the development of structures within high-risk areas of the wildland-urban interface, known as “WUI.”

The legislation directs 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 directs the Office of the State Fire Marshall to draft rules on implementing defensible space around homes within the WUI and asks electricity providers to develop wildfire mitigation plans and strategies under the guidance of the state’s Public Utility Commission.

SB 762 also establishes a 19-member advisory council and new director-level position in the governor’s office to oversee the implementation and invests a total of $190 million to fund all of these new programs and rulemaking efforts.

Sen. Jeff Golden — the bill’s carrier in the Senate and one of its chief architects — said passage of the bill represents a significant first step in following up on the recommendations made by the Governor’s Council on Wildfire nearly two years ago.

Golden, an Ashland Democrat, started his floor speech by citing some numbers. According to the Oregon Department of Forestry’s data, there have been 597 fires that have burned Oregon’s landscape on 15,300 acres so far this season. That’s up from 243 fires on 4,300 acres at this same point last year.

“We have done something remarkable,” Golden said. “By we, I mean scores of people who’ve been working collaboratively for years, up to and including last night, to create a wildfire program for Oregon that rises to the scale of this crisis.”

Following a hearing in the legislature’s budget committee earlier this week, Democrats, including Golden, were uneasy about whether the bill had the support it would need to clear the Senate.

Republicans — and Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose — expressed concern that the bill’s definition of the WUI was overly broad, and threatened rural residents’ way of life. Other’s had concerns that agricultural areas would also be folded into the WUI, giving way for large tracts of crops to be scrapped in the name of wildfire protection.

But a last-minute deal to amend the bill by deleting the definition of WUI and delegating rulemaking authority on crafting a new definition to the Oregon Department of Forestry was able to bring many who originally weren’t satisfied with the bill’s language back into the fold. The amendment also prevents large swaths of land from being arbitrarily excluded from the WUI and sets a 100-day time limit for the Oregon Department of Forestry to complete the work as to prevent stalling.

On the Senate floor, Johnson asked Golden whether or not the bill would create further problems and delays for those who are in the process of rebuilding following devastating wildfires that took place over Labor Day weekend last year.

“The answer would be no,” Golden said. “We’ve seen this session, mostly from the House committee on wildfire, a number of bills that strengthen the rights of rebuilding.”

Golden was referring to a handful of bills that have already cleared both chambers that aim to ease the rebuilding process. SB 405 was signed by Gov. Kate Brown back in May and extended the timeline under which rebuilding can take place through 2025. Brown signed another bill just this week — HB 2341 — which authorizes county tax collectors to adopt policies forgiving some property taxes for those who lost their homes. Another — HB 2289 — allows folks to rebuild to the design standards of 2008 or when the home was built, whichever is later.

For Golden, building consensus and trust in the process of how this bill is implemented was a crucial aspect of getting it across the finish line and will continue to be crucial as lawmakers watch and wait to see what actions they need to take next.

“Because of the ferocity and evolving nature of wildfire on the northwest landscape, there will always be more work to be done in this program to adapt to the reality on the ground, and improve the program we launched today,” he said.

But despite guard rails to help those rebuilding and the amendment to give assurances to rural lawmakers that the WUI definition wouldn’t cause their constituents harm, there were still some who simply couldn’t get behind the bill.

That includes Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Stayton, who lost his home in the 2020 wildfires.

Girod said he views the bill as an overreach by the state in telling him, his neighbors and constituents how they should rebuild. He equated the effort to legislating Portland-area homeowners to require their houses be “riot proof.”

“That’s how ludicrous I personally see this bill,” Girod said. “I see it as an assault on those people that lost their homes.”

Sen. Art Robinson, R-Cave Junction, characterized the bill as being an unlawful seizure of Oregonian’s property rights.

Vale Republican Sen. Lynn Findley talked for 15 minutes in a roller coaster of a speech that both praised and bemoaned different aspects of the bill. Findley ended up voting in favor but echoed comments by Golden warning their colleagues that this is only the beginning.

“This is not a one-and-done project. This is absolutely the furthest thing from a one-and-done,” Findley said. “If we don’t stay intimately involved, we’re going to spend $190 million, and we’re not going to have any results when the smoke clears, if it clears.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting