Think Out Loud

How Oregon is mapping wildfire hazards

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
April 11, 2024 4:25 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, April 11

Firefighters work the Golden Fire in Klamath County, Ore., Monday, July 24, 2023, in this photo provided by the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Firefighters work the Golden Fire in Klamath County, Ore., Monday, July 24, 2023, in this photo provided by the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Courtesy of Oregon Department of Forestry, Klamath-Lake District


The state is taking another crack at a wildfire hazard map that outlines areas where fire resources should be prioritized. The first attempt was withdrawn in 2022 after public outcry. As the latest map is drafted, the state continues to seek public feedback. In the coming months, agencies will visit places that might be more affected by the map, like Southern Oregon. Andy McEvoy is an OSU faculty research assistant, Derek Gasperini is a public affairs officer with the Oregon Department of Forestry and Tim Holschbach is a deputy chief of policy and planning for the Oregon Department of Forestry. They join us with more on the mapping process and what comes next.

The following 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. Two years ago, the state of Oregon released a wildfire risk map. It put about half of the state’s tax loss in areas that were considered vulnerable to wildfire and big sections of the state were put in the extreme wildfire risk category. Then came a huge public outcry. The State Forestry Department was swamped with complaints from people who felt the new designations would mean higher insurance premiums. They also complained that the map was put together without enough public input. So the map was eventually scrapped, and last year lawmakers approved new legislation directing the agency to try again. That work is moving forward. In the coming months, state officials will hold public outreach meetings in communities around Oregon.

For more on where the mapping process stands right now, I’m joined by Andy McEvoy, an OSU faculty research assistant, Derek Gasperini, a public affairs officer with the Oregon Department of Forestry and Tim Holschbach, the deputy chief of policy and planning for the Department. It’s good to have the three of you on Think Out Loud.

Andy McEvoy: Thanks, Dave. Happy to be here.

Miller: So Derek Gasperini, first. Where does the process stand right now in the big picture? What’s the status?

Derek Gasperini: Well, I’d actually look to Andy and Tim for status on map development. I think generally for our process now, we’ve had some statutory changes from Senate Bill 80 in the 2023 legislative session and we’ve been responding to that. As a department at OSU, we’ve been incorporating many things that we’ve heard from members of the public county commissioners over the last year and a half and we are on the precipice of launching that public outreach campaign to visit the communities of largest wildfire hazard throughout the state. And a couple of places that really had unique concerns about their particular landscapes on the previous hazard maps, so that we can kind of address community member and resident concerns on the map itself and the associated wildfire programs connected to the map.

Miller: Tim Holschbach, as I mentioned, one of the big issues that your agency has acknowledged was not the right level of public outreach or coordinations last time around. What does that outreach look like right now?

Tim Holschbach: Thank you for that question. The outreach, we’ve been engaged with various groups throughout the process and have been working with them on the integration of that feedback, to have that iterative process. Initially with what we heard from the public the first go around, and we integrated that into the next product. Then we met with the counties and said, look, this is what we heard from your constituents, got their feedback, we got the feedback from the counties processed. The question that was left was irrigated agriculture. We just are wrapping up that conversation and we’re about ready to go back to the public with what we’ve heard from them and give them essentially an iterative status update on what we’ve heard and where the adjustments are to the process, and then to get that second round of feedback.

So as we get back into these communities, working with local leaders as well, to have quality engagement with their residents there. That process is turning around the policy corner of it and then getting back out into that public feedback realm. And also, as Derek mentioned, of really providing… one of the things Senate Bill 80 did with this is [is] it provided the intent statement around what the maps are used for. So providing that to the public as well, of why the state’s undertaking this process and what its purpose is at a statewide level. Because we have multiple plans and maps at different levels and different community spaces throughout the state, what this product is supposed to be for, and what it needs.

Miller: What is it supposed to be for? What is, in simple terms, the purpose of this map?

Holschbach: So the purpose of this map is, we’ll call it threefold. It’s to inform Oregonians of the wildfire hazard that they live in. And so it provides information. Secondly, it’s to provide a prioritization tool for investments by the state and direction for wildfire related programs of where they’re needed the most and to help achieve that in a coordinated manner. And also for the areas that are largely affected by wildfire of the requirements for increased survivability – items like home hardening and defensible space, which has been proven to help protect communities and homes and property throughout the country. So it’s those kinds of threefold things, but largely providing information and having a tool that legislators and local governments can use in decision making.

Miller: Andy McEvoy, one of the changes that followed from the legislature’s call for a redo, it could seem like a small language tweak. Instead of talking about wildfire risk, you’re now going to be mapping out wildfire hazards. What’s the difference and what’s the significance of this change?

McEvoy: Yeah, you’re right, David. It might seem a little bit like semantics, but it is a pretty important shift. And we’re glad that change got made. And really the change in language, from risk to hazard, I think it helps clarify what the intent of the map has been all along. Tim just laid out sort of the purpose statement for the map in Senate Bill 80. And I’ll just simplify that and say that really the purpose of the map is to support a strategic and coordinated or cohesive response to wildfire, across all these various programs. That’s really what a hazard map does.

But to get to the point a little bit more directly, wildfire hazard, it’s a representation of the potential for wildfire to cause damage to properties, put simply, and that’s a factor that can really consider four factors: climate, weather, topography, and vegetation. So we put all those things together into some simulation models, we can estimate two really important things: the likelihood that a wildfire is gonna occur and the intensity of that wildfire. And so that’s a hazard, those two components, wildfire likelihood and intensity are hazards. And they help us understand that potential for damage to any given property as a function of where that property sits on the landscape. But if we wanted to get to risk, we’d have to also understand the really unique characteristics of each of those structures. And what I mean is we have to also be able to map and quantify the specific arrangement and types of vegetation immediately around the home and the materials that a structure is built out of and how well maintained those structures are. So if we wanted to get to risk, we’d have to have a lot more information about individual structures on the landscape and we just don’t have that. That information doesn’t exist.

Miller: And that’s one of the things that people said two years ago, right? I mean, [they say] I’ve done this hardening, I’ve made my home more resilient. I put a different roof on and so I’ve lowered my risk and you didn’t take that into account.

McEvoy: That’s right. That’s exactly right, Dave. We did hear that feedback and that was confusing to folks, why we’re assessing risk, but we’re not accounting for those characteristics. And so this change in terminology helps distinguish the intent of the map, which is to identify those hazard zones, those relative hazard zones across the state so that state agencies can prioritize them.

Miller: Am I right that there’s another change which also strikes me as semantic, but maybe you could show me that it’s not. Instead of going from no risk to extreme, we’re going to be talking about low or moderate or high hazard. So, I mean, is high the new extreme?

McEvoy: So in the previous iteration, that first map that was released, it had those five risk classes. And in order for a structure to potentially be subject to downstream regulation-related to defensible space and fire hardening, it had to meet two criteria. At that time, the structure had to be located in a tax lot that was classified as high or extreme and it had to be in the Wildland Urban Interface. And so there really was no reason to have two classes, a high and extreme, when the intent is to identify those structures that are going to be prioritized for outreach and education and investment. There’s really no purpose in having two classes to do that, right?


Miller: And so it was more of a binary question. Am I subject to these potential new rules? Am I subject to thinking about my property in a particular way? And you’re saying having it just be simplified makes more sense bureaucratically?

McEvoy: Yep that’s correct. And then on the other end of that spectrum, we wanted to acknowledge the fact, and something we heard from Oregonians during that initial roll out, there are really no places in Oregon that have no wildfire hazard or are exposed to no hazard. So everything is now allocated into one of those three classes: low, moderate or high hazard.

Miller: At the other end, no more no.

I’m just curious about the scientific standard here to set the threshold. I mean, what’s the difference between a moderate wildfire hazard and a high one? And, at the margins, how much confidence do you have to say what’s gonna end up on the map? This land is moderate and this land is high?

McEvoy: Oh, it’s such a good question. So the solution really came out of a robust process that included not just wildfire risk scientists like myself and others at Oregon State University, but also referenced various other prioritization and strategic programs in Oregon, across the Pacific Northwest, and across the West. There are a lot of communities and groups that are trying to tackle this issue. So leveraging sort of examples from other parts of the West and the Pacific Northwest. And then also working with stakeholders through a really robust rulemaking advisory committee back in 2021, 2022, leading up to the development of that first map.

These questions were really discussed in detail and the way it was identified ultimately was we calculated hazard for all tax lots in Oregon. And then the decision was to take the top 10% highest hazard values, and those would be the ones that were designated as high hazard. There are other ways to do it, but that is an objective and scientifically sound place to draw that threshold. It doesn’t mean that the difference between a high hazard and a moderate hazard property is going to be readily apparent. And it’s hard to quantify that exact difference or make that difference real. But if the goal here is to create a prioritization framework for our state agency partners, this is a scientifically sound and objective way to do that.

Miller: Derek Gasperini, what is the time frame for the public meetings around the state where you’ll start to or continue to explain this process?

Gasperini: Right, thanks Dave. So we are still in the midst of logistical planning, but we believe we have our first date and location determined. So we will be starting and continuing most of this outreach through the month of June, lagging just into the beginning of July. So six locations from June 3rd to July 1st and we’re planning to hit the Redmond-Bend area, La Grande, Medford, Grants Pass, Klamath Falls and The Dalles. And those six locations include the five counties that account for probably the 90% to 95% of those property tax lots in the wild, in the high hazard and also within the wildland-urban interface. So we’re really getting the areas most impacted by any downstream impacts from the map, including where defensible space standards might apply and where home hardening rebuilding codes might apply as well.

Miller: Am I right that starting on June 30th, you’re not going to have the finalized maps to show people?

Gasperini: What we’ll have is, and Andy can probably explain this a little bit more, but we will have maps that show that geographical area and what’s called the pixel level hazard. It’s that environmental hazard on a landscape scale not necessarily applied yet to individual tax lots that requires a lot of work from OSU. And we want to get to the public to talk about and answer direct questions about what the map means, how the map is developed, what’s represented in the map and then have those agency partners from the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office, from Department of Consumer and Business Services, representing insurance concerns and building codes, Oregon State University and Department of Forestry to talk about the rules, legislation and appeals.

So we really want to address a broad swath of community questions and interest in regards to the map, but we just won’t have the time to get those tax lot level hazards assessed. And we really want to talk with folks about their questions on the mapping process and those downstream impacts. Most folks will probably buy key landscape details from those maps [and] have an idea of where their property lies within a particular hazard area. But it won’t be completely indicative of the property tax lot level hazard that will be assessed at the later time when the map is more complete.

Miller: Tim Holschbach, what are you imagining right now is going to cause the biggest outcry this time around?

Holschbach: It’s a great question and I think it’s continued to be built around the… What we’re hearing is insurance is still a concern and the fear of the map being used to drive the insurance companies decision making regarding insuring of property. Senate Bill 82 was passed during a 2023 legislative session and prohibited the use of that and gave some outlines to what insurance companies can and cannot use, and keep promoting that information and also where Oregonians can find answers. I think it is going to be the biggest continued investment of time for answering questions.

That was one of the biggest challenges the first time around, of not enough answers for people’s questions. So as Derek mentioned, being there with our agency partners is a different model of public engagement. That someone can get all of their questions answered by the experts on that time when we’re out there in their communities. So I think that that’s going to be continually with [that] there and progressively next steps.

Miller: California requires, if I’m not mistaken, that insurance companies reduce premiums for their customers if those customers make their homes more resilient by putting in a fire resistant roof or removing flammable vegetation. Does Oregon have anything similar? Not saying you can’t look at this map and increase premiums because of this, but you have to reduce premiums because your customers have actually been proactive.

Holschbach: So Senate Bill 82 did have some considerations in there. It wasn’t directing insurance companies to lower rates, but it was instructing them that in their underwriting, they had to give considerations for items like defensible space, home hardening, being in a firewise community and that had to be publicly displayed as well. So, the insurance commission is working on gathering through that. That became effective by January 1 and as that information is being put forward, it’s being compiled by the insurance commission and so that consumers have it available and that will give consumers a broader sense of information of who is offering discounts. But Oregon did a slightly different approach than California did.

Miller: Andy McEvoy, just in the minute or so that we have left, I haven’t heard any wildfire officials say that the science behind that first map was faulty, that there was something wrong with the map itself. It’s more that the process behind putting it together or the language for the rollout, that it caught folks by surprise and that the process led to a lot of anger. How different do you think this new map is going to be, in the end, from what was released two years ago?

McEvoy: Well, beyond the changes that we mentioned already, this transition from five risk classes to three hazard classes, which will make the map appear different at statewide level, there are some really other important changes that we’ve made in response to public feedback. So in all our coordination with Oregonians and landowners, land managers, elected officials, subject matter experts, over the past year and a half, we have been able to diagnose some of that feedback we got and identify some scientifically sound objective ways to change our methods. And those are largely going to affect rural and agricultural parts of Oregon. And in general, the effect is to reduce hazards, in this updated map, in those landscapes, compared to the map that Oregonians saw back in 2022. So particularly in a local sense, there will be some significant differences in the map compared to 2022.

Miller: Andy McEvoy, Derek Gasperini and Tim Holschbach, thanks very much.

McEvoy: Thank you.

Holschbach: Thanks, Dave.

Miller: Andy McEvoy is a faculty research assistant at OSU. Tim Holschbach is deputy chief of policy and planning at the Oregon Department of Forestry. That is where Derek Gasperini is a public affairs officer.

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