Remains of the devastation from the 2020 Beachie Creek Fire are still evident in the small town of Gates, Feb. 26, 2021.

Remains of the devastation from the 2020 Beachie Creek Fire are still evident in the small town of Gates, Feb. 26, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill this week that will allow property owners who lost their homes to wildfire last fall to rebuild their homes and structures to the original zoning and planning standards that were in place when they were first built.

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Passing through both the Oregon House and Senate nearly unanimously, Senate Bill 405 will extend the timeline under which more than 4,000 Oregon households will have to begin rebuilding homes and structures on their property. It also recognizes that as planning and zoning laws have changed both statewide and locally, rebuilding efforts should be allowed to continue under the original regulations that structures were built under. That means less jumping through regulatory hoops for those in communities that were hardest hit, such as the Santiam Canyon.

According to Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Stayton, many people whose homes were destroyed in the more than 1-million-acre Beachie Creek Fire last fall returned to find not only had the fire taken out their homes and critical infrastructure, but it also left behind very dangerous situations, including eroded river and stream banks and hazardous trees. The cleanup and renovation of water and other infrastructure systems has taken more time than expected, leaving some feeling like the year mark at which they were regulated to begin rebuilding is approaching too quickly. Under SB 405, those looking to rebuild would have their permits extended to 2025, when state and federal emergency declarations are set to expire.

Many homes destroyed in this housing area of Elkhorn were older constructions. The new bill extends the timeline that homeowners have to rebuild on their property, and allows construction to follow regulations in place at the time the original structures were built.

Many homes destroyed in this housing area of Elkhorn were older constructions. The new bill extends the timeline that homeowners have to rebuild on their property, and allows construction to follow regulations in place at the time the original structures were built.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

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“Remember that a lot of these homes were built decades ago, and zoning laws and criteria were a lot different back then,” Girod said. “This will allow the structure to be built to the original standard. I was very happy to get this through the legislature and get it signed by the governor. I do think this will help a lot of people, especially up in the Gates-Detroit area.”

Both Girod and Rep. Jami Cate, R-Lebanon, are pleased that the bill will give reprieve to many who have been struggling to rebuild and return to their fire-scarred communities in counties such as Marion, Clackamas, Jackson, Linn, Lane, Lincoln, Douglas and Klamath, which all saw varying degrees of wildfire activity in 2020.

Rep. Cate told OPB Thursday that while this is a good step in the right direction, more work on regulatory issues is needed to help speed up the process before people who have been displaced decide to move or leave the area entirely.

“More and more things are coming up every day of different barriers that people are facing,” she said. “One of the biggest things we are seeing is that there are so many time limits on this situation like with conditional use. We’re just really trying to get those time restrictions extended out to the point where it is feasible for people to rebuild regardless of how long it takes for us to get the hazard trees removed and make it a safe environment for rebuilding.”

Lynne Piper and her daughter Ada, 4, play near the remains of their Elkhorn home, Feb. 26, 2021. The Piper family had only owned their 17-acre property in Elkhorn a short time before it was destroyed by the 2020 Santiam fire.

Lynne Piper and her daughter Ada, 4, play near the remains of their Elkhorn home, Feb. 26, 2021. The Piper family had only owned their 17-acre property in Elkhorn a short time before it was destroyed by the 2020 Santiam fire.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB


Cate and Girod said that this a frustratingly slow process for many — like Girod, who lost his Mill City home on the Santiam River in the Beachie Creek Fire — who are currently renting in other communities or living in trailers and recreational vehicles as they await approval from engineers assessing their properties for safety.

“I think that the most frustrating part is that the longer it takes, the more population base we’re gonna lose,” Girod said.

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