State uses insurance policy to pay for wildfires

Oregon has already blown through fire deductible

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

For the second straight year, Oregon has tapped into its insurance coverage to help cover the growing cost of firefighting.

Acres burned by wildfires this year have already tripled the 10-year average, and scientists expect that to become a trend as long-term droughts intensify as a result of climate change.

To help with ballooning costs, Oregon has a $20 million deductible as part of a unique large wildfire insurance policy that goes back four decades. The state burned through the deductible by the end of July and now has gone through two-thirds of its $25 million policy.

How much longer fire season will last is hard to predict, said Dan Postrel, public affairs director for the Department of Forestry. Forests around the state remain dry and there is potential for more large fires.

“Anything could happen,” he said.

The state’s insurance policy softens the blow on the high costs the state pays annually to fight large wildfires. The cost is separate from funds used to fight small brush and forest fires. It’s also a means of paying for fire suppression that is somewhat unique to Oregon.

The state’s wildfire insurance is similar to a driver’s car insurance. The state pays a premium, or annual fee, and in return the insurance company offers a deductible that must be met before the insurance coverage kicks in.

The state’s approach has saved Oregon about $21.7 million over 38 years, according to Department of Forestry data.

Oregon’s method of paying for fire suppression is unique in the Northwest.

The 40-year-old policy is through British insurance giant Lloyd’s of London, which pays costs over a state-paid deductible that has risen from $325,000 in 1973 to $20 million last year. For the first time in its 38 years holding coverage — the state wasn’t covered in 1976 and 1985 — the state last year had its entire insurance coverage paid.

“Last year was an epic year,” Postrel said. “We used all of the $25 million in coverage and more.”

Due mainly to the massive and expensive Douglas Complex Fire near Roseburg last year, the Department of Forestry spent about $122 million on wildland firefighting. The Douglas Fire burned nearly 50,000 acres on more than 75 square miles and took nearly a month and a half to corral, costing the state more than $50 million to fight. The state is still trying to determine how much the federal government will reimburse the costs of last year’s fire season, with accounting this year slowed by the early and intense fire season still underway. The Department of Forestry fights fire on state-held lands, as well as some federal land and private timberland.

The premium last year was about $923,000. This year, it more than doubled to more than $2 million, said Rod Nichols, another Department of Forestry spokesman.

So why did it double? Nichols went to the car insurance analogy. If a driver gets into a couple of wrecks the car insurance company is going to increase the premium.

“And that is what happened to the state of Oregon,” he said. “Basically we had a very expensive season in 2013.”

The state expects its premium costs to stay high for several years.

The state of Washington, which saw its largest-ever wildfire this year, has no wildfire insurance. Nor does Idaho.

Oregon landowners who are protected by the Department of Forestry help the state pay its insurance premium as part of their annual fees. In Central Oregon, timberland owners pay $3.32 per acre per year and grassland owners pay $1.25 per acre. The state also collects surcharges from landowners and taxes from timber harvesters to help pay the insurance premium and other costs associated with firefighting.

The state’s wildfire insurance helps keep this rate down, said Bill Swarts, a forester who retired from Cascade Timberlands in late July. “In the long run it saves landowners money,” he said.

The company owns most of the land burned by the 6,908-acre Two Bulls Fire, which authorities said was likely caused by arson. By paying the state, companies share the costs with the Department of Forestry and other landowners.

Still, the insurance only covers the cost of firefighting, not property such as timber lost in a wildfire. Cascade Timberlands started salvage logging stands burned in the Two Bulls Fire in late July as it tries to recoup some of the value of timber holdings blackened by the blaze.

The Department of Forestry uses an insurance broker each year to help determine which insurer to go with for the next fire season. The state then takes in bids from insurers.

“As an agency we are just searching for the best insurance at the lowest price,” Nichols said.

This year’s fires

The state this year has already burned through most of its insurance coverage, and scientists believe the trend will continue, especially east of the Cascade Mountains.

“We are expecting to see hotter, drier summers into the future,” said Kathie Dello, deputy director of the Oregon Climate Service.

Fires have already burned three times more than the 10-year average for acres burned per season.

The Two Bulls Fire alone, which burned near Bend in early June, cost $5.7 million to fight, Tracy Wrolson, district business manager for the Department of Forestry in Prineville, wrote in an email.

“We still have some outstanding bills, like retardant, that may change the numbers a little bit,” he wrote.

Depending on weather, fire season could run as late as October, and state fire officials are hoping this season doesn’t end up like the last one.

The Department of Forestry last year collected federal reimbursements, mainly from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to trim the total cost to $75 million. State lawmakers then provided the $30 million between the total cost and the insurance through money from the state’s general fund.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com

Taylor W. Anderson contributed to this article from Salem.