On the Road to Wildfire Resilience in Oregon; State Passes Comprehensive Wildfire Bill on July 1
Earlier this year, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released a report on the deadliest disaster of 2018—the Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, California. Eighty-one people died in that fire; 18,000 structures were lost. From mounds of data, researchers pieced together a timeline of the event: in roughly 6 hours, 85 percent of the town’s homes and businesses were gone, burned down by embers blown from the vast flame front or flames that traveled to homes from bushes, fences, mulch, and even neighbors. Eyewitness accounts from first responders describe woodpiles that caught adjacent siding, yard debris that carried flames to wooden decks, and dozens of other similar scenarios of home destruction.
Last Labor Day, Talent, Phoenix, and several other Oregon towns experienced their own versions of Paradise. Nine people lost their lives, and 4,000, their homes. With the weather now hotter and drier than Oregonians might ever have imagined, a future of increased wildfire activity should be in clear view. Exact predictions vary, but none of the studies or models summarized by the Oregon Climate Change Institute’s Fifth Oregon Climate Assessment, offer a future without fire over a larger portion of the landscape and fires of increased size and severity.
While this forecast is grim, there is a bright spot. On July 1, the Oregon legislature passed SB 762, a bill encompassing a wide range of policies to help the state confront its wildfire future with fewer losses. Under SB 762, Oregon will gain new, detailed maps to identify areas of wildfire risk and assist land use planners and others in developing strategies to reduce that risk. Utility companies will need to meet standards that reduce the risk their equipment will spark a fire, and builders will need to follow a new wildfire/urban interface (WUI) building code. Critically, it will also require individual property owners to reduce risk to their homes through defensible space requirements.
As we saw from the NIST report on Paradise—and many other studies before that—homes with flammable material close to their exterior will catch on fire; those homes will ignite their neighbors. And once multiple buildings are on fire, amidst the demands of evacuations, fire department resources will be exhausted, leaving homes, businesses, and potentially people, to the fire. For this reason, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) strongly recommends that all structures in the WUI maintain at least a five-foot zone on all sides that is free of mulch, bushes, woodpiles, and anything else that can transfer flames from the wildfire to the building. Spacing of bushes and trees and removing yard waste can reduce risk even further.
SB 762 was the result of months of bipartisan negotiations and stakeholder consensus building. As political cooperation nationwide stalls on so many fronts, Oregon is fortunate to have members like Senate Natural Resources Chair Jeff Golden and his colleagues who led the effort to ensure the recommendations from the Governor Brown’s 2019 Wildfire Response Council report did not simply sit on the shelf. This pragmatic cooperation will need to continue as the State Fire Marshal, the Department of Businesses and Consumer Services, the Department of Forestry, and other state agencies now move to implement the bill.
The Pacific Northwest is facing a challenge. Just days after Oregon passed SB 762, 450 miles to the north of Salem, the village of Lytton was almost entirely destroyed by a wildfire. As enormous as this challenge is, it is not unprecedented. Before we had implemented codes and standards and invested in fire protection, fires that burned down entire neighborhoods, sometimes entire cities, were not uncommon. Since 1896, NFPA has championed the reduction of loss from fire. We are confronting today’s wildfire challenge with Outthink Wildfire™, which calls for retrofitting homes and business, following best land use planning practices, supporting the fire service, tending to our forests, and educating the public on their role in reducing risk. Oregon’s SB 762 is a great starting point for the state, but efforts must continue if Oregon wants to secure a future with less wildfire risk.
Learn more about Outthink Wildfire at nfpa.org/wildfirepolicy