Oregon Lawmakers Moving in the Right Direction on Wildfire

In 2020, wildfires in Oregon killed nine people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes and businesses. In response, legislators in 2021 are considering a number of measures to help those impacted, like bills to limit tax liability of victims and aid local governments with expenses incurred because of the fires. One bill though, aims to help the state prepare.  In early April, a bipartisan trio from the Oregon Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery voted to advance a comprehensive wildfire preparedness bill. If passed by the full legislature, SB 762 will lay the foundation for wildfire resilience in the state.

SB 762 covers a lot of ground, from requiring wildfire mitigation plans from electrical utility providers, to helping small land holders tackle vegetation management, and establishing smoke mitigation programs for vulnerable populations.  Importantly, the bill also directs the Oregon Department of Forestry to develop and maintain a comprehensive statewide wildfire risk map. 

With wildfire prone lands detailed on a map, state agencies will be able to act on SB 762’s requirements to pass wildfire safety building codes for those areas and develop recommendations to enable the state’s land use planning laws to address wildfire risk mitigation.  In 2020, as state officials were considering improving building codes for wildfire safety, the chairperson of their residential building code board asserted that “Oregonians” want “the freedom to choose where they want to live” and can take “the personal responsibility to construct their homes [according to] that choice.” In contrast, the authors of SB 762 rightly recognize that Oregonians, like everybody else, want safe homes built to the latest codes and standards.

As emphasized by the bill’s sponsor, Natural Resource Committee Chair Jeff Golden, the bill was the culmination of thousands of hours of input from experts and individual stakeholders around the state, including those who worked developing the recommendations for the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response 2019 report.  Moreover, as state agencies move forward with the defensible space requirements, the land use recommendations, the building code changes, and other parts of the bill through advisory committees and public hearings, citizens will have many opportunities to provide input that reflects the state’s diverse landscape.

Having passed out of the Natural Resources Committee, it is now up for the whole Senate to consider SB 762, and for the Oregon Joint Committee on Ways and Means to debate whether to fund the measure’s current price tag of $150 million. Surely, when the appropriators consider that cost, they will weigh it against the half a billion dollars that wildfires can cost the state each year.

$150 million is a down payment on Oregon’s future needs.  An estimated one third of all Oregonians, 1.2 million people, live in areas at risk from wildfires. The Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response estimated that the cost to reduce wildfire risk across the state’s heavily forested landscape will be at least $200 million per year alone

Of course, funding for land management and wildfire response is a mix of state and federal tax dollars. However, if Oregon policymakers fail to act on this wildfire crisis that sees harrowing evacuations, homes destroyed, and businesses interrupted, it’s Oregonians who pay the true price.  

SB 762 is in line with NFPA’s Outthink Wildfire™, a call to end the destruction of communities by wildfire in 30 Years. SB 762 advances the right policies needed to begin retrofitting at-risk properties, constructing to wildfire safety codes, evaluating local response capacity, prioritizing land management needs, and educating the public on their role in reducing risk. 

Oregon lawmakers should act to make sure it gets over the finish line this session.

Sign up for the NFPA Network Newsletter
Meghan Housewright
Director, Policy Institute

Related Articles