A new map from the Oregon Department of Forestry estimates about 80,000 homes and buildings are in areas of high or extreme risk for wildfires. Some local municipalities have found that wildfire risk assessments they’ve conducted before contradict the state’s analysis. Tim Holschbach is the deputy chief of policy and planning with the Oregon Department of Forestry. Chris Chambers is the Wildlife Division Chief for Ashland Fire & Rescue. They both join us to discuss the state’s new map and how it compares to assessments made in the past.
Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. On June 30th, the state of Oregon released a new searchable map. It’s called the Oregon Wildfire Risk Explorer. All you have to do is plug in an address and you can see the level of wildfire risk that the state has assigned for that particular property. It’s a spectrum from dark green, which means low risk to dark red, which means extreme risk. Some homeowners have been surprised to find out that according to the state, they live in extreme risk zones. But as first reported by the Oregon Capital Chronicle, Chris Chambers has a different concern. He is the Wild Fire Division Chief at Ashland Fire and Rescue. He says that some high risk areas in Ashland have mistakenly been identified as low risk on the state’s new map. Chris Chambers joins us now along with Tim Holschbach, who is the Deputy Chief of Policy and Planning for the Oregon Department of Forestry. Welcome to both of you.
Chris Chambers / Tim Holschbach: Thanks, Dave. Thank you.
Miller: Tim Holschbach, first. Can you remind us what Oregon lawmakers required of you and other agencies in terms of this Wildfire Risk Mapping when they passed Senate Bill 762?
Tim Holschbach: So during the 2021 legislative session, the legislature did pass Senate bill 762 and it was a combination of advancing Wildfire Policy within the state of Oregon, and what it did is it revised what was previously the Oregon Forestland-Urban Interface Wildfire Protection Act. And that was the original piece of legislation where identification of wildfire risk led by County Committees that identified areas of risk as well as where defensible space requirements would apply. Senate Bill 762 revised that and moved it to charging the department along with Oregon State University with development of a Statewide Wildfire Risk Map, and within the creation of that map they identified four criteria that had to be taken into account: climate, weather, fuel and topography. And through that process we started a rulemaking process last August, culminating with the board’s adoption of the rules at the June Board of Forestry meeting. And with OSU developing this map that takes those four factors into account, utilizing data from the Quantitative Wildfire Risk Assessment, which was also outlined in in the bill, and that Risk Assessment in particular has a wide, wide swath of data involved with it that expands further beyond the four criteria that the law dictated the department and OSU had to follow.
Miller: How much input did local governments have in the creation of this statewide map?
Holschbach: When we were walking through the administrative rule process and the architecture of how the map was to be created, we had advisement from local entities like the League of Oregon Cities, Association of Oregon Counties, along with over 20 other local governments and groups that would have been affected by by the map and it’s implementation and downstream implications. So those folks and their representatives assisted us in the crafting of how the map was to be constructed.
Miller: I was thinking more about say, if a county or city had its own graphical information or had done its own mapping in the past, would you use that, would you take that into account or did you have, really, your own ‘starting from scratch’ methodology for making this map?
Holschbach: The methodology for the creation of the map was utilized within the law of utilizing National Best Practices, like OSU is a leader in wildfire modeling. So that was of great assistance with that as well as this map was to take that local input and largely based on how the the risks the same data we’ve been utilizing for the creation of this map has been utilized in other aspects of community wildfire protection plans and the localized plans. So we’re drawing from the same data source. However, we were constrained with the four criteria that the bill outlined instead of taking into account aspects such as a critical watershed and some of the other criteria that the local wildfire plans are allowed to adopt to augment their risk analysis.
Miller: Chris Chambers, can you give us a sense for the risk map that you and others in Ashland helped create, something like four years ago, and how it’s different from what Ashland looks like on the new statewide map?
Chambers: Yeah, Dave. What’s important to understand about this effort at the state level and versus what we undertake at the local level, is these are all models, they don’t all necessarily describe 100% exactly what wildfire risk is on every parcel in the area that they design in a model, there’s a saying about these models that for a long time now, is that ‘all models are wrong and some are useful.’ So it’s a matter of figuring out how useful is it, but where the models also fall short, and then recognizing where that is. In Ashland’s case, our local mapping effort started back actually in 2014, we undertook a very basic modeling exercise that’s prescribed actually in state ordinances in order to look at your own community and say, well, how much of my community could be considered a wildfire zone, such that we could apply codes so that when we build new houses, they can be made safe, and the vegetation around them can be safe as well, as they’re being constructed. That took us a couple of years to get through, and ultimately, that was adopted by the City Council in 2018 as the Ashland Wildfire Hazard Overlay. And we actually ended up considering the entire community as a wildfire hazard zone in that process. Subsequently we actually started collecting data door to door through all of the homes in Ashland, over 6,000 homes, we walked, we call it our sidewalk survey, we had people walk around and gather data and then as we did that, we collected all that data in an application and were able to analyze it and then look at where homes were at particular risk across the city because there could be a very high hazard home due to its construction and the vegetation around it, but it could be in an area that we think is not very likely to be exposed to fire. So we actually collected vegetation and fuels data within a mile buffer of Ashland and we analyzed that in a fire behavior model and what that showed us is that primarily due to ember exposure, those are the sparks that fly ahead of a wildfire, very, very commonplace. Folks in Oregon are probably pretty familiar with that. But when you consider ember travel, there’s really nowhere in Ashland that can’t be exposed to wildfire, there’s varying degrees of that ember exposure, but given the vegetation that we’ve mapped that we’ve failed to show that there isn’t anywhere, there’s no risk. And the state map shows that there’s a segment of Ashland that is no risk as a zero risk. And then there’s another area that’s a donut around that’s classified as low risk.
Miller: I want to go back to the phrase you started with to describe all models. You said that there’s this classic idea: All models are wrong because they’re approximations of the actual world around us, but some are useful. In your overall estimation, is the Ashland part of the statewide map, is it useful?
Chambers: In our case, I don’t think it’s useful for our community because ultimately, what the map in part will be used for at the state level is in areas of high and extreme danger, and there are some of those areas in Ashland, that’s where communities will have the ability to use these codes and some will want to do that and some won’t want to do that and which is fine, but if Ashland actually was misclassified, there could be areas of the town where those codes wouldn’t be able to apply and where they already do apply. So, what we’re trying to do now is have the code discussion on the other side of this issue and say, well, because we’re a local community who has already defined our own risk, we’ve already done these code adoptions. We feel like it’s the best thing for our community, just let us be grandfathered into this process and maintain our codes in place and not be replaced by this process.
Miller: Tim Holschbach, correct me if I’m wrong here, but my understanding is now we have these maps there, but there is still rule making, that has to happen in terms of how these maps will be used in terms of say if new construction is going to happen in a place that the state has deemed it to be at extreme fire risk, you’ll only be able to build in certain ways. Those rules are yet to come. But if I understand correctly what Chris Chambers is saying is we would like the rules if there are if we deem that stricter zoning is necessary in certain parts of the center of Ashland, say, than would be called for in the state map, we want to be able to be able to enforce those stricter rules. How much local control will cities or counties be able to exert?
Holschbach: That’s correct in your assessment that there’s the rulemaking is still ongoing for the building codes, home hardening as well as the defensible space standards implementation, those will be completed and initiated early next year. As far as for local controls, both of those sections have provisions in them to allow local jurisdictions to adopt further restrictive or apply the defensible space standards to areas that are not in those high in extreme risk zones and in essence those areas identified in the community as moderate, a local jurisdiction could adopt the defensible space standards to apply to those moderate or even low risk communities if that local jurisdiction chose so, as well as integrating in any of the standards into a community’s planning process, as our communities grow, and these areas identified as the urban zones or wildland-urban interface expands those criteria can be developed into that planning process at the local level.
Miller: So, Chris Chambers, does that allay your fears?
If I heard Tim Holschbach correctly, you will be able to have stricter rules locally than the state map would suggest?
Chambers: Yeah, that would go a long way in making us feel a lot better that we wouldn’t have to give up our current approach for wildfire safety, which in part does rely on codes for new construction. We’re still having that conversation with the rulemaking committee and actually have a meeting next week to go over that and ultimately the legislature has to approve all of this. So we still have opportunities to have a voice via our local legislators in that process. One more concern that I do have for them about the map though, is that it may give certain communities a sense that they don’t have the level of risk that they might really have, and in looking at the methodology of the map, I wasn’t part of the map committee, but the way that they looked at fire behavior and the potential for that fire to affect the community is through the length of the flames, which is one very legitimate measure of fire intensity. But what the map did not look at is that ember-travel distance, and it is well known in the literature about community fire protection and looking at how homes burned during wildfires, that embers are the major source of home ignitions. And so that the map didn’t consider that is it could potentially underestimate and maybe even significantly underestimate community wildfire exposure and at the time that we see a changing climate and you know, we’ve had a nice mild spring at least down here in southern Oregon and start to summer, but we know there’s still the rest of the fire season to go and looking at our experiences over the past few years, and especially during 2020, there was a lot of communities in Oregon that were surprised at what happened, and especially in forests that had been previously considered wet forests in the Cascades and the Coast Range. Yet climate change modeling is predicting that those communities and those forest types are going to see a lot more fire. So I wouldn’t want this map to lead communities to think that maybe they don’t need to do anything when they should really be thinking harder about it.
Miller: Chris Chambers and Tim Holschbach, thanks very much.
Chambers / Holschbach: Thanks so much, Dave. Thank you.
Miller: Chris Chambers is the Wild Fire Division Chief for Ashland Fire and Rescue. Tim Holschbach is Deputy Chief of Policy and Planning with the Oregon Department of Forestry.
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