A recent editorial, “Wilderness doesn’t mix with civilization” (The Bulletin, Aug. 25), says the Deschutes Canyon-Steelhead Falls Wilderness Study Area shouldn’t have its boundary next to the Crooked River Ranch. It says, “New wilderness areas should be located far from established communities.” This makes sense, especially with respect to the spread of wildfire.
The more general problem is that established communities, especially those attractive to new homeowners in Central Oregon, have a habit of expanding into forested areas. This gives rise to major fire problems for areas commonly known as the Wildland-Urban Interface. These lands are private lands that lie within 500 meters of forested public land.
According to the nonpartisan Headwaters Economics group, there are 15.1 million acres of these lands in the 11 western states. Only 16 percent have been developed.
In Deschutes County, which is far more developed than the average Western county, there are 77,440 acres of which 42 percent have been developed. The remaining 55,000 wildfire-vulnerable acres could be subject to residential development. This amounts to roughly 85 square miles, which is a lot of land.
People like to live near forests, we know that. What we don’t know is whether the full costs of building are taken into account. And, to quote a local activist friend, “Local elected officials have never met a rural housing development they didn’t like.” Maybe so, maybe not: There are legal hurdles to jump. But there are also far-sighted investors who bought land years ago and now feel that local government owes them a building permit.
There is an asymmetry here. Local governments can collect property taxes from rural developments, but they are able to lean heavily on the federal government for fire-fighting costs. Until local governments, investors, builders and homeowners are faced with the real costs of building, these lands will continue to burn and occupants will continue to face evacuation notices.
We can learn a fire control lesson from the tragic Houston area flooding, painful as that has been for displaced occupants. The National Flood Insurance Act of 1968 mandated that homeowners and mortgage lenders are required to carry flood insurance on properties within flood-prone areas although a recent editorial states that the Act has not been well-implemented (New York Times, “Flood Insurance Policies Plunged Before Harvey,” Aug. 30, 2017). There are now fewer policies than five years ago, and only 15 percent of the homes in Houston’s Harris County were insured. A related editorial (New York Times, “How Federal Flood Insurance Puts Homes at Risk,” Aug. 29) expands on these incentives for hazardous occupancy within the flood plain.
We can’t control where lightning will strike, and we can’t rule out careless campers and cigarette tossers. But we may be able to slow the extent of population growth — and hence the fire danger — by creating a program of mandatory fire premiums within these areas, especially at the edge of cities like Bend. The premiums and the size of the insured areas could be set by local government, but the one-third mile should be a minimum width. While homeowners would still need to insure their own structures and belongings against fire damage, paying a premium would acknowledge that they are building in a fire danger zone.
Local governments would receive the premiums paid by those homeowners who are willing to live in these areas in spite of the higher cost. The main outcome of the program would be that the wildfire risk could be reduced both to premium payers and others because there would be fewer homes built and less likelihood of fire spreading into adjacent urban areas. Sad but true that houses as well as trees and shrubs can become forest fuel.
— Joe B. Stevens lives in Bend.