Bill would improve fire prevention in communities near forested areas

The Graham Fire in 2018 skirted a home in the Three Rivers subdivision because the owner created a defensible space by cutting down the high grass on the property. (Ryan Brennecke/Bulletin file photo)

An under-the-radar bill with support from Central Oregon’s legislators could go a long way toward improving fire-prevention efforts in communities near forested areas in Deschutes County and beyond.

House Bill 2222, sponsored by Reps Jack Zika, R-Redmond, and Cheri Helt, R-Bend, passed unanimously out of Oregon’s House of Representatives last week. The bill expands a groundbreaking state law that went into effect more than two decades ago. The law sought to expand fire-prevention efforts on private property by requiring the Oregon Department of Forestry to provide regular reports on their efforts.

The sponsors and Central Oregon forestry officials feel that strengthening that reporting requirement will encourage residents to provide a vital firebreak.

“There’s a real urgency around this issue,” Helt said. “We have to strike that balance between protecting our habitat and managing our forests.”

Faced with a growing problem with wildfires burning homes in Bend and beyond, the Oregon Legislature passed the Oregon Forestland-Urban Interface Fire Protection Act in 1997. The law tasked local and state agencies with determining which residences are in wildfire-prone areas and establishing fire-prevention work in those areas.

Ed Keith, Deschutes County forester, said the goal was to teach residents about ways to establish defensible space around a home — a buffer that does not contain flammable trees, grasses or shrubs — in order to give firefighters in the area a better chance to defend those homes.

“To be in a situation where (firefighters) could be trapped or burned over is not acceptable, so we rely on the residents,” Keith said.

Keith said Deschutes County was one of the first two counties, along with Jackson, that devised a plan to identify fire-prone areas. Due to its climate and topography, all of Deschutes County is considered to be at a high risk of wildfire, but homes near the forest, in what the state classifies as the “wildland urban interface,” particularly those in high-density neighborhoods, were particular priorities, Keith said.

Under the 1997 law, the state forestry agency would send brochures and other information to residents to ensure that they’re equipped to remove nearby grasses and shrubs, and cut down low-hanging tree limbs from nearby plants. Individual landowners would then certify that they have met the fire-mitigation standards.

“It was a huge educational effort, and it really jump-started a lot of awareness about defensible space in Central Oregon,” he said.

However, the law has been somewhat hamstrung in recent years.

Keith said landowners were supposed to be updated every five years, to account for changing forest conditions and new development. However, the updates have largely fallen by the wayside in the last decade, Keith said.

Moreover, Zika said the original law lacked a mechanism for state forestry officials to report on how many residents in fire-prone areas they’ve connected with in a given year. HB 2222 changes that, requiring the state forestry agency to report annually on the progress it makes contacting and certifying residents living in the wildland urban interface.

“It essentially gives them a homework assignment,” Keith said.

While the bill doesn’t require minimums or maximums, Zika said he expected to see the state forestry officials make more progress with the reporting requirement in place. Zika said ODF hasn’t taken a position on the bill, given the potential for becoming an unfunded mandate, though he noted that other bills being considered by the Legislature could fill in the funding gaps.

The initial push for the bill came from Gene Whisnant, Zika’s predecessor in House District 53.

Whisnant decided not to seek re-election in 2018, but Zika said he was receptive to the idea from the outset.

“We’ve got to get something started,” Zika said.

With Zika, Helt and Rep. Betsy Johnson, D-Scapoose, whose family is from Redmond, as co-sponsors, the bill has a strong Central Oregon influence. Helt and Zika agreed that the region’s experience with wildfire has prompted communities and legislators alike to be proactive.

“Large forest fires are becoming a normal thing here in the summertime,” Zika said.

One area that stands to benefit from more work in the wildland urban interface is Sunriver, Zika said. The community is surrounded by land managed by the U.S. Forest Service on three sides, which has prompted concerns from residents about the possibility of a catastrophic wildfire. The Sunriver Owners Association was the only citizen organization to weigh in on the bill during a public hearing in February, providing a letter of support for the bill.

“Precautionary measures such as fire mitigation and safety plans play a vital role in ensuring that our firefighters are better prepared to deal with dangerous situations as they arise,” reads the letter, written by General Manager Hugh Palcic.

Helt and Zika were optimistic the bill will become law. On March 28, the bill passed the house with 58 votes in support and none in opposition. The bill was then referred to the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.

“When it comes out unanimous, I think that’s a good sign,” Zika said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818,

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