Oregon has a new plan to protect homes from wildfires. Home builders push back
The green metal roof of Mary Bradshaw’s home shines amid scorched earth and dead, blackened trees. All of the surrounding homes burned down in last year’s Beachie Creek fire in Oregon’s Santiam Canyon, but his was unaffected.
“We were shocked,” Bradshaw said. “After seeing what the fire did, we really didn’t expect it to be standing.”
It’s a shining example of how home hardening measures can keep homes from burning, even when surrounded by fire. Bradshaw and her husband built their house with concrete siding, a cement porch, no gutters or vents on the metal roof, and no vegetation near the house. These are all key fireproofing measures that experts recommend.
“We built it with fire in mind, even though we never thought we would have a fire,” Bradshaw said.
Oregon officials hope some of these measures will help prevent homes from burning in future wildfires as summers in the West get hotter, drier and more prone to fires. But they were the most controversial part of a new wildfire protection plan, facing pushback from landowners and the homebuilding and farming industries.
In some sort of compromise, these groups, along with others, will now spend the next year advising state agencies on how to map the state’s most fire-prone areas and determine where the rules are. home curing will be required.
Most states do not require fire resistant materials
California has enforced wildfire building codes in high-risk areas for over a decade, but that’s an outlier. An NPR analysis last year found that most states do not require rebuilding with fire-resistant materials, and homebuilding associations have strongly opposed proposals to do so.
This happened in Oregon when authorities first called for wildfire building codes several years ago. The Oregon Home Builders Association said the measures would add a substantial cost to the price of a home, although other assessments have found fire-resistant homes to be slightly higher or even cheaper. The state approved fire mitigation codes in 2019, but left them optional.
Then last year, raging wildfires in Oregon destroyed thousands of homes and killed nine people.
The unprecedented wave of destruction prompted lawmakers to pass a massive $ 200 million wildfire bill to prevent another such disaster. It also includes greater firefighting capacity, expanded forest management plans, and clean air shelters to protect vulnerable people from smoke.
“I don’t think any of us will forget the horror as we saw cities burnt down overnight, thousands of people evacuated their homes, leaving behind all their belongings,” the said. Governor of Oregon, Kate Brown, signing the bill. “We just weren’t equipped to tackle the fires of this new era, which are faster and fiercer and fueled by the impacts of climate change.”
Democratic State Senator Jeff Golden, who led efforts to pass the bill, said it was important to know which parts of the state are most at risk from wildfires and prioritize those. actions in these areas.
“No one is even starting to think that we are going to eliminate forest fires in the future, but just reduce the risks and protect the communities,” he said. “We are fighting for our survival in a very real way, and there are a lot of trends working against us.”
Oregon to now map places with highest fire risk
Fire hazard maps will have the greatest influence on which areas will see the strictest building codes for fire safety for new construction, Golden said. There will also be requirements for cleaning flammable materials around homes.
A key stumbling block will be defining the so-called wilderness-urban interface, where residential areas meet forests and rangelands. It is the fastest growing type of land use and, along with the warmer climate, increases the risk of forest fires for communities across the country.
“We are looking for a balance between letting people do exactly what they want on their private property and responding to this existential threat,” Golden said.
Critics from the real estate, construction and agriculture sectors once again sounded the alarm bells during the legislative session. They feared that broad restrictions would increase costs for landowners, home builders and farmers and violate private property rights.
“If Senator Golden thinks for a minute that I am going to cut down the 200-year-old, 200-foot-tall ponderosa pine in my yard, he is wrong,” Senator Betsy Johnson said over the radio. spectacle. “I’m just not sure I want invisible, irresponsible and unelected bureaucrats dictating the future of the state of Oregon and how we’re all going to live on our own property.”
Opponents of the new rules sit on advisory committees that will help determine where to require them. Among them are Mark Long, CEO of the Oregon Home Builders Association, and Dave Hunnicutt, president of the Oregon Property Owners Association. Hunnicutt said he was concerned the rules were not being enforced tightly enough.
“We have a proposed definition of the wilderness-urban interface that will essentially include the entire state of Oregon,” he said.
Meanwhile, a new program has already been launched – with $ 11 million in funding from the new law – to remove flammable brush from the “home ignition zone” in interface areas between wilderness and urban areas.
Jeff Parker, executive director of the Northwest Youth Corps, said many communities have natural areas laden with excess fuel that could send a blaze burning faster and hotter to nearby homes.
His workforce training group typically pays young people to weed or build trails in wilderness areas, but he will now spend more time in neighborhoods, mostly doing extreme gardening jobs.
“Our goal here is to… make sure our community has resilience,” Parker said. “So if a fire does break out, it doesn’t have the catastrophic impact, the massive displacement of people and the impact on the community.”
Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting.