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Regional Interests

Lawmakers aid in wildfire rebuilds

Devastation from the fires that ripped through Detroit in 2020 are still evident,  April 15, 2021.
Devastation from the fires that ripped through Detroit in 2020 are still evident, April 15, 2021.

It’s been one year since wildfires burned through Detroit, Oregon, leaving many residents without homes. State lawmakers have aided the town and those affected by passing bills focused on easing requirements for building permits and funding relief packages for residents and programs to prevent future fires. We speak with State Representative Brian Clem on what these policies do and how they’re helping Oregonians affected.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB. This is Think Out Loud, I’m Dave Miller. We’re spending the hour today talking about various aspects of wildfire recovery and resilience. This week marks the one year anniversary of the Labor Day Fires that burned over a million acres in Western Oregon. Brian Clem has been thinking a lot about what comes next. He is a Democratic State Representative from Salem and he’s also the Chair of the House Special Committee on Wildfire Recovery. He joins me now. Brian Clem, welcome back to Think Out Loud.

Brian Clem: Thanks Dave. It’s always good to hear your voice and I enjoy listening to Cassandra too. I have some special ties to Opal Creek and I almost wasn’t sure I could switch to the next topic because I’m thinking about the place I proposed marriage, the places I took my daughter swimming as a kid. So, that’s tough stuff.

Miller: And just one holy to many, people spot among so many that burned up last year and we could probably spend hours talking about so many different places. I’m curious, you know, so let’s start there. How were you affected by the various personal stories about loss that you heard over the last year?

Clem: It hurt, but there was really a need for help. So shifting from literally- in a three or four, we had some five hour hearings- nonstop of straight stories, from empathy to, ‘What can we do quickly?’ My job isn’t just to, ‘I feel your pain here,’ I need to actually turn this into turning the momentum around for recovery. I felt like if I could do something about it that helped ease some of the sadness about it. I live in Salem., those fires definitely turned the sky black over Labor Day.  We didn’t go outside, my daughter was already struggling from the challenges of the pandemic and then suddenly there’s no daylight anymore for days, and there’s got to be families that were, you know, not directly in harm’s way, but it just changed their mood and quality of life for a long period of time.

Miller: Let’s pick up where we left off with Cassandra in the last segment. We were talking there about Senate Bill 762 and the plans, among other things, to create rules for more resilience, more defensible space, more resilient homes going forward, especially in places that are prone to wildfires. But as she was saying, there is going to be some robust debate about what those places are and what homeowners should be required to do. What do you want to see in the finalized rules?

Clem: Let me give you one caveat, I explicitly was instructed by leadership to focus on recovery and not prospective forward-looking policy. So a whole ‘nother committee dealt with that, and they had tough debates, and my committee, hopefully we can pivot and talk about what we did on recovery for victims because we didn’t talk one ounce about what to do in the future because we had people hurting right now.  Having said that…

Miller: I’ll ask you plenty of questions about what you did, but I am curious, I imagine you’ve also thought about this, even if this wasn’t the exact work of your committee?

Clem: Like most things, actually, there is truth to both sides. So I heard what Dave said about how he thinks things are going. I do agree with him. I was Chair of the Committee when we established some of these Wildland-Urban Interface Boundaries and criteria and it was meant to be a doughnut around cities. That’s true. But climate change was not as real then, so far more areas are at risk of fire now than the doughnut.

Miller: Maybe... maybe climate change wasn’t as obvious to everybody. It was, not to be so picky with language, but I just feel like it’s important for us to really, it was very real then, very real now. Now, it’s harder to ignore.

Clem: For sure. Yeah. I’m talking like 12, 15 years ago,

Miller: Me too.

Clem: We were  discussing cap and trade, but there wasn’t as much urgency as there has been in the last, six or seven years at the legislature. You know, where we’re as, you know, debating these walking out, coming back, Executive Orders. It’s intense now. Back then it was more like, well we’re gonna have some fires and let’s figure out how to make sure houses don’t burn down and flow into cities and also burn cities down. So for where I come at it from, in these rules, I do think that money will help solve a lot of the consternation, meaning if the State will contribute, and I’ll tell you when we talk about recovery, we are doing that for people who are fire victims. Instead of asking them to pay for the fire hardening, we’re paying for the fire hardening. We are establishing new grant programs. We will pay for it to avoid that debate. So I think a lot of it comes down to money. People don’t mind fire hardening. It’s can they afford to fire-harden seems to be the debate. Then that gets into, well, do I really, if I’m just remodeling my kitchen, and I don’t live anywhere in my mind near a fire risk zone, do I have to change out the roof and do all these other things? I think we’ll get to a consensus. I really do. I think, that’s the Oregon way, and I’ve heard updates that even the Daves and the Farm Bureaus and others are already shifting to, ‘Yeah, okay, maybe advocates were right. Maybe the definition of the WUI is not that big of a deal,’ but then within the WUI, there’s phased rankings and it depends which phase ranking you’re in, how much you have to do. So I think the debates about to shift over from the WUI to which phase of the WUI are you in? High, high risk? High risk? And pretty bad risk.

Miller: Let’s turn to the area that you really did focus on a huge amount over the last year, which is helping people who were deeply affected, many hundreds of people or thousands who lost their homes. What were some of the specific challenges that people faced in trying to rebuild their homes?

Clem: Yeah. Thanks Dave. So there is a land use system in Oregon that is designed to do certain things, one of which is not have a lot of building outside of Urban Growth Boundaries unless you’re a farmer or forest land owner. But we do have a lot of structures pre-land use that are out there. So I mean I’m talking within weeks of the fire, I got some calls saying there’s gonna be trouble. Someone’s gonna want to rebuild and they’re not going to be able to because their neighbor sues them and uses the land use system to challenge their rebuild. We should talk about that before that happens. So actually through the fall, and I wasn’t in charge of the Wildfire Committee, I was in charge of the Land Use Committee. We did meet and started thinking through how to make a victim-centred package that resulted now in this thing called House Bill 22-89 the Rebuild Bill that says, when somebody, who -  only due a fire victim, not if you’re going to go build new out there, if you were a fire victim, what rules do you operate under when you rebuild?

Miller: In the basics is that you could be sort of grandfathered in because you were already there. So it would be much easier for you to rebuild where you were.

Clem: That’s right. Unless you either A. were going to bring a Federal Law, out of compliance with the Federal Law, for example. If you built in a floodplain, that is, at that time the floodplain was in a different location. Now, FEMA has expanded them out, new maps. You could cost Oregon our entire ability to participate in the National Fire or Flood Insurance Program. So we didn’t want that. So we said, unless you’re gonna violate federal law, you can rebuild as you were as long as you were legally there and paid taxes. We’re not going to get into debates about did your neighbor really not like you blocking their view before? And is this their chance to sue you? We didn’t want any of that. We wanted people to be able to recover and start their lives over again. So that was an important consensus that, and I’m talking ‘Thousand Friends of Oregon’ and their Chapters and the Home Builders and Hunnicutts all came to a consensus that that’s how we’re going to treat this situation,

Miller: Meaning people who often have been on opposite sides of land use issue..

Clem: Correct.

Miller: ... came together to help create the land use system. We have, with Senate Bill 100 going back 50 years or so. I’m curious about the effect that huge increases in construction costs and lumber costs have meant for people who want to rebuild. It seems like a terrible version of a perfect storm - houses destroyed, and the ability to build houses is, people could be greatly constrained by the price.

Clem: That’s right. So one thing and I’ll weave in something you asked me earlier. I was affected as most committee members were by real stories. Before we started trying to come up with what we needed to do, we held 15 hours of hearings over about I think a two week period, about four hours, five hours and like another five. And I think maybe we had one more overflow for one or two. And we heard story after story like you describe of people saying, hey, listen, I do want to rebuild. I want to go back. I want to be part of the Detroit community again. But my insurance company is telling me that the house I built 10 years ago for 190 grand Is now 385 [grand]. It’s actually 540 as I’m pricing out the exact same blueprints and, it’s the cost of lumber. I mean that seems to be the biggest issue.

Miller: I want to make sure that I and our listeners understand the numbers just put out there. So the insurance company would say, we’ll give you this much for it, but ‘that much’ is hundreds of thousands of dollars short of what it would take to actually rebuild.

Clem: That’s right. Cost of lumber being a huge driver. One of the initiatives that we’ve created out of my Committee, and it was a late night phone call with Val Hoyle, the Labor Commissioner, she co-chaired the Governor’s Wildfire Recovery Council. They made recommendations.  My committee picked up their recommendations, added more, after listening to the public. One of them is this new thing called Oregon Rebuilding Oregon, and what we’re doing is to try and make lemonade out of  lemons and deal with that lumber issue. We’re repurposing wood from the fires into Oregon mills that were also affected through either timberland ownership, employee housing or in some cases their own operations by the fires, to build structures for victims of the fires, at a much lower cost than it would be if it were just open market, because we’re supplying the wood for free. And that’s going to buy down the cost. I’ll just give you one quick example, real world. Just last week we issued a $10 million dollar promise for a public-private partnership in Medford, seven acres, a couple of hundred units of apartments. They will be essentially available to people who are working-sort of income. Sometimes we have a program for very low income people but we don’t hit people who are actually kind of working level income. So farm workers were getting told they’re not eligible for assistance sometimes because they make too much money. This is a project aimed at them. The mills of Klamath Falls, the wood comes from the fires, and we can buy down the cost and provide this essentially subsidized apartment housing in a really nice urban part of Medford. And it’s a private developer out of Portland, that’s pretty famous for building modular, nice facilities. It’s about 40% faster to build and 20% cheaper. And all the jobs and materials came from Oregon.

Miller: What’s the time frame for this? Because I mean we’re dealing essentially with a very, an ongoing emergency, especially if people have lost their homes. How quickly can people actually rebuild as a result of your work?

Clem: So let me give you one real time example. I talked to the Chair of the Marion County Commission about half an hour ago.  As of the end of August, so a week ago, 33% of the homes in Detroit are either rebuilt or, I’m sorry, in Marion county. That’s Detroit, Idanha, Gates, they’re either rebuilt or they are in the permit phase And let me put that against Paradise, California. We all heard about. Three years out, we’re one year out - three years out, they were at 5% of permits or rebuilds. We’re at 33% of the Canyon. Another quick fact. Yesterday they took another Bill that I should hit on that the Legislature did. They are the first county to opt into a program to send checks back, to prorate property taxes because people’s homes after September were not worth what they were because in many cases they’re gone or damaged. So as of today you will start seeing, in Marion County, checks arrive in your PO Box or wherever you’re living, for a refund of those property taxes. That was another thing the Legislature did. We also said things like, ‘you have five years to rebuild instead of the normal one year.’ If you were outside the UGB, you have one year, now you have five. We heard in our public hearings from people that their decisions were being changed on what they would rebuild because of this law. And so we did a victim centred listening tour, and then we built legislation like real time in a continuous feedback loop with the victims and their local leaders. I’ll give you one more. The Lane County government came to us, like two weeks before session, and said, ‘God, we know it’s late, we can do a deal with the United States Basketball Academy to house fire victims, but we got to change the Land Use Law.’ Luckily, I still had one Bill floating around relating to the use of land. We changed the law. They cut in FEMA, needed this, we cut a deal between the owner and FEMA the next day. And so that kind of stuff is what I think makes Oregonians feel like, okay, there’s a shot that our government won’t get in the way. In fact, they might even help us. And we haven’t talked about the money we gave out, but just on the regulatory site, we’re really trying to be nimble and help people get rid of red tape.

Miller: Well maybe this will get to the money. A lot of the people who lost their homes, especially in Jackson County lived in RV parks, places that have been...

Clem: ...mobile homes, yeah...

Miller: Called, yeah, naturally occurring affordable housing as opposed to you know, affordable housing created intentionally by a city or a county. And these kinds of places can be really hard to recreate. How did you think about helping people in this exact situation?

Clem: Very hard. It was, as you know, probably, Oregon already had a housing crisis. Those parks were under pressure already from development because often their owners are being offered by developers to buy them and convert them. So that was already an issue. Now, if I’m an owner, do I take my insurance check myself to some developer, and we heard in our very first hearings - and this is what I mean by continuous feedback loop - we heard right off the bat, Lincoln County had seen a park convert already. It burned down. The owner sold to someone else, and a victim came on, and said, ‘I am not going to get to go home, am I, because we heard that’s going to go to a developer.’ So what we tried to do was pump money in super quickly to Jackson County. So before session even started, the E Board sent them 25 million and said, ‘Hey, start buying up land if you need to, even buy it from those park owners.’ Here’s another one. I went down there and toured one of those parks in Phoenix and Talent and Rep Marsh, the Rep for that District, showed me around. She came back on Monday after we got back and said there’s a problem. This one could rebuild. We can get them in faster, but they can’t get connected to the city water because of a quirk in the water annexation law. So that was another one right at the last second, they figured out we could be three years in red tape, or we could pass a law and immediately get them set up to get access to water. House Bill 31-26. We got it done. It’s signed into law so they should be able to get their water, which then gets people able to start citing their facilities.

Miller: I’m curious, as you’re describing ...

Clem: ...its bottleneck of buildings. I mean, it’s a backlog. You order a manufactured home today, it’s nine months to a year minimum before you’re going to get it. So that’s  a huge problem for us, we’re still working on…

Miller: So much of what you’ve been talking about, you’ve been emphasizing how, because of the urgency and the collective will to act among you and lawmakers and with local officials as well, that there’s a, it seems like a very different way of lawmaking than you’re used to. I’m curious if there should be some version of this should be the way you’re always working in Salem?

Clem: I think you’re dead right. I think it should. Something has to shake us loose from the way people got comfortable. One year long rule making lots and lots of stakeholder input. I’ll give you one real good example. You’ve probably read the reporting, I can’t remember which reporter for you did it, but it was a joint project. There was a serious debate within the recovery effort, about whether we halt recovery efforts to bring down hazardous trees, while we figure out are we were cutting some we shouldn’t have, or do we keep doing recovery and sort of try to audit at the same time, was their problem; and there was an urgency that we were pushing ODOT to get as many trees down as fast as possible that were preventing recovery. Well, then there was pushback, and people said you’re cutting too many trees, too fast. Stop you’re ruining Oregon’s environment. So that’s the one downside to when you ramp things up and take quick action. That Oregon philosophy of let’s talk everything through and get consensus sometimes, you know, can suffer. But I think we do need to put the foot on the gas pedal more often when urgent things happen at a bare minimum.

Miller: Brian Clem.

Clem: I think people need to listen more, that’s the bottom line, to each other.

Miller: Brian Clem. Thanks very much for joining us today. I appreciate your time.

Clem: Thanks Dave.

Miller: That’s Brian Clem, an Oregon State Representative from Salem. He represents District 21 and he is the Chair of the House Special Committee on Wildfire Recovery.

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show, or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to thinkoutloud@opb.org, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.

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