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Wildfire Maps Underscore Risks — and Costs — of Climate Change

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Wildfire Maps Underscore Risks — and Costs — of Climate Change
Flames from the Beachie Creek Fire melted the aluminum rims on a car near the destroyed Oregon Department of Forestry, North Cascade District Office in Lyons, Ore., Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020.
Flames melted the aluminum rims on a car near the destroyed an Oregon Department of Forestry district office in Lyons, Ore., in September 2020. This summer, Oregon released maps of fire-prone areas, then retracted them amid public fears about steep insurance hikes.
Rob Schumacher Statesman-Journal via The Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. — Jennie Peters vividly remembers what it was like to evacuate with three children from a wildfire as fierce winds blew embers through the river canyon near her home two years ago.

"When we left, I could see the burning embers coming over the trees, landing in the backyard," she said. "I called my mom, and I was like, 'You know, I don't know if I'll ever see our house again.' And I kind of put it in my mind that it's probably all gone."

Fire destroyed outbuildings on her family's 13-acre property near the Santiam River in Lyons, Oregon, including a well house and her husband's workshop. The family lost hardwood trees, mostly maples, valued at $200,000. But their 1,700-square-foot home survived, albeit with smoke and heat damage that prevented their return for four months.

Since then, Peters said, she and many of her neighbors who lost homes or property have been meeting in a weekly community support group. They share resources and commiserate over their losses. And they celebrate rebuilding milestones — and their victories over insurance claims adjusters.

The rebuilding process "has given PTSD to people," Peters said. "Insurance has bullied so many people to where they don't want to fight."

As a result, many Oregonians in fire-prone parts of the state were nervous this summer as the state Department of Forestry released new maps categorizing fire risk. About 80,000 property owners got notices warning them they were at high or extreme risk for wildfires and might be subject to new state fire-safety building and landscaping rules, according to the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

In response, thousands of people complained about inaccuracies with the maps or confusion about their purpose. The state canceled an in-person public meeting and instead held it online. Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that the state Department of Forestry logged 1,700 voicemails that went unheard because the agency's staff was busy fighting fires.

The information the maps contain and the action they likely will require of property owners underscores the fear and financial concern of people nationwide who face growing hazards as climate change destabilizes their understanding of the risks they face from floods, extreme storms, fires and other hazards.

It also may point to the need for a good public relations strategy for states considering adopting similar maps.

‘Defensible Space’

Wildfires are starting earlier in the fire season, occurring in more places, taking longer to suppress and inflicting greater losses, according to the Insurance Information Institute, a national clearinghouse for insurance information.

"In the last five years, we've had the most expensive and largest wildfires in the West," said Janet Ruiz, a director of strategic communications for the Insurance Information Institute.

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In Oregon this summer, residents worried the risk classifications would require them to make speedy upgrades to more fire-resilient building codes and landscaping standards being adopted by the state, or else face fines. Some worried the maps would make their properties unsellable or that upgrades would be cost-prohibitive. But they were especially concerned about the effect of the maps on the availability and price of home insurance. The higher the risk, they expected, the higher the insurance rates.

Oregon's fire maps were developed by the Department of Forestry and Oregon State University as part of sweeping legislation passed in 2021 aimed at addressing the increasing risk of wildfires in Oregon and devoting more resources to firefighting. As part of the law, the Office of the State Fire Marshal, by the end of 2022, will establish a defensible space code that requires high-risk property owners to landscape in a way that defends structures from fire.

The mapping was crucial for identifying which property owners might have to meet the code, which would require property owners to create a buffer between structures and the grass, trees, shrubs or wildland areas that surround them. California began similar risk mapping in 2007 to identify high risk properties. In 2021, the state began requiring people who sell property in a high or very high fire hazard severity zone to document they had completed a defensible space inspection.

Creating defensible space can offer protection from embers that may travel several miles from fires. Embers, the Oregon Department of Forestry notes, are the leading cause of home loss during a wildfire. Giving them fewer flammable places to latch onto and ignite can increase the likelihood that homes won't catch fire.

High Risk

When Peters and her husband looked up their home on the state maps, their property was only at a medium risk for fire — for now. They fear they’ll end up in the high-risk category eventually because they're on land near open space, in what's known as the Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI, which the U.S. Fire Administration defines as the zone of transition between unoccupied land and where structures or other human development intermingle with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuels.

"Let's say we get a few more dry summers, and they decide our area is now high risk," she said. “We were like, ‘OK, that’s kind of stressful.’ Because we could at any time be bumped up to high risk.”

The Oregon Department of Forestry withdrew the fire maps in early August following the public outcry. They'll work to retool them with more thorough public input, said Cal Mukumoto, Oregon's state forester and the director of the Oregon Department of Forestry, in a statement acknowledging how the agency fumbled the rollout.

The department met the deadline set by state lawmakers to deliver the maps, Mukumoto said, but "there wasn’t enough time to allow for the type of local outreach and engagement that people wanted, needed and deserved."

The Oregon maps were designed to inform people about their wildfire risk, so they could take steps to mitigate it, not for insurance rates, said Jason Horton, a spokesperson for the Oregon Division of Financial Regulation, which oversees the industry.

To reassure policyholders, the agency issued what's known as a "data call" to insurers asking those doing business in the state whether they are using the now-revoked risk maps to set rates. Insurers are required by law to answer truthfully. All insurers confirmed they weren't using the maps for setting rates or coverage decisions.

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Insurers in the United States already have deep knowledge of wildfire risks based on their own research, mapping and experience, said Kenton Brine, president of the NW Insurance Council, a nonprofit that provides information about insurance in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. But the past isn't a great predictor anymore, Brine said.

"What we are seeing in Oregon and across the West, really perhaps due to climate change or a combination of factors like climate change combined with increasing population, is that past experience is still relevant, but insurers can't rely on that solely," he said.

Insurers use climate-based and geographic and geological mapping. But they also look at factors such as how near people live to fire stations, and whether the fire station is highly rated, or staffed with people who are trained to fight wildfires.

The state map in Oregon "serves a really important purpose in terms of helping property owners identify their risk," Brine said. "But it isn't necessarily a useful tool or going to change anything for how insurers conduct rating and underwriting."

Rising Costs

Homeowners do have many tools to assess risk independently. In California, for example, there's MyHazards, a mapping system people can use to assess earthquake and fire risk. And anyone in the nation can enter their address into Risk Factor, a new tool developed by the nonprofit First Street Foundation to identify fire, flooding and heat threats. Risk Factor ratings are also included on properties listed for sale on Realtor.com.

Consumers will save a lot of heartache if they have adequate coverage, said Ruiz, with the Insurance Information Institute. She cites her own 1979 home in a fire-prone area of California. Her homeowner’s policy reflects how much it might cost if she lost it to fire and had to meet the state's newer building codes designed to help structures resist fire damage

"It's worth taking a half hour when your renewal comes in and checking that coverage amount," Ruiz said. "You can call your insurer. You can call your local builder and just be sure you have the right amount."

For many who've experienced losses, though, costs are rising. Homeowner’s coverage that once cost Peters' family $800 a year now is $1,400 a year, she said, and she expects that to only go up when they officially finish rebuilding from the 2020 fire in the coming months.

Supply chain issues, inflation and labor shortages have not only slowed the rebuilding process, but also made it much more expensive. Before the pandemic and the 2020 fire season, it would have cost $280,000 to replace their home if it was destroyed by a fire, Peters said. Now, that same home would cost an estimated $400,000 to replace, which is reflected in the higher premiums.

Brine points out that Oregon is still a highly competitive homeowners insurance market; about 150 companies sell policies. They all have varying risk tolerance for wildfire, so some may choose to limit how many homes they insure in a high-risk area. Some may increase rates to reflect higher risk, but others may not. Consumers will benefit by shopping around, he said.

Mukumoto, the state forester in Oregon, warned that Oregonians face a threat that can no longer be ignored, one that will be reflected in new building codes and guidelines for defensible space.

"Climate change is bringing us hotter, drier summers and historic levels of drought, resulting in severe wildfire conditions and longer, more complex and more expensive fire seasons," Mukumoto said. "We find ourselves at a critical juncture when it comes to wildfire and need to take bold action to mitigate further catastrophic impacts to Oregonians, communities and our state’s natural resources."

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