Oregon Releases Widely Anticipated Wildfire Risk Map

By David J. Petersen

The Oregon Department of Forestry recently released a new interactive wildfire risk map for every tax lot in the state – over 1,800,000 parcels in all. The mapping effort is part of the comprehensive wildfire response legislation that was adopted in 2021 as Senate Bill 762.

The map classifies each parcel into one of five categories of wildfire risk – none, low, moderate, high or extreme. Additionally, the map identifies the interface zone where development meets combustible vegetation, called the wildlife-urban interface, or WUI. Properties that are classified high or extreme risk and are in the WUI are expected to face new regulations such as fire-safe landscaping and special building codes. Based on the current map, this is roughly 120,000 tax lots, including about 80,000 structures.

The classifications may have other impacts as well. A higher classification and/or a location within the WUI may increase insurance costs. However, a higher classification may also open access to funds or other resources to reduce wildfire risk, with corresponding insurance rebates. So far, real estate experts have not seen high wildfire risk as a drag on property values, as the market for property in fire-prone areas and the WUI remains robust.

Higher risk property owners will receive notices of the classifications, which will be appealable for 60 days. The Department of Forestry realizes that the mapping effort is controversial and expects a reasonable number of appeals to be granted, as property owners provide additional information that helps refine and improve the map.

While the map may be controversial, the fact of increased wildfire risk in Oregon is not. Fires across the state in 2020 burned more area than had burned in the previous 36 years combined, at a cost of 11 lives, 6,000 structures, over 1 million acres and over $7 billion in economic losses. Average annual acres burned doubled from the 1990s to the 2000s and doubled again in the 2010s. The Legislature clearly hopes that by building a better data set as to where the risks are greatest, increasing awareness of wildfire risk, and possibly imposing new regulations, those trends can be slowed or even reversed.

NOTE: On August 4, 2022, in response to heavy public feedback, the Department of Forestry withdrew the map for further consideration.