Stephen Hamway
The Bulletin

The Deschutes County Commission is making headway on an effort to revamp its building codes to better withstand a devastating wildfire.

During a meeting on Wednesday afternoon, county commissioners learned about an update to Oregon’s building code. If the county chooses to adopt the amendment, which went into effect in January, the county could tweak its building to code to ban new shake roofs and large repairs to existing shake roofs, among other changes designed to keep structures from catching fire in wildfire-prone areas.

Commissioners opted to put together a group of fire officials who would develop a map of Deschutes County’s most fire-prone areas and evaluate where and how the county could adopt the more rigorous building code.

“I think the community is ready for this discussion,” said Commissioner Tony DeBone.

It’s no secret that Deschutes County, with its dry summers and abundance of forested land, is vulnerable to wildfires when the late summer rolls around. The county rated wildfires second on its list of most significant hazards, behind only winter storms.

A report commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service concluded that Bend and its surrounding unincorporated communities carry the fourth-highest risk of wildfire in Oregon, and Tumalo and Sisters each appeared in the top 25 communities on the list.

“I think we have to seriously look at what we’re doing in Deschutes County,” said Commissioner Patti Adair during the meeting.

Separately, Deschutes County commissioned a report from the University of Oregon’s Community Planning Workshop to evaluate the threat the county faces from natural hazards, like flooding and wildfires. The report concludes that portions of Deschutes County that abut the forest face a significant risk of being damaged or destroyed by wildfire, and recommends the county prohibit wooden shake roofs and siding and impose standards for defensible space around structures in wildfire-prone areas, among other measures.

However, Deschutes County Forester Ed Keith said counties and cities can’t adopt more stringent regulations than the state building code allows. Oregon’s Building Codes Division added an amendment aimed at wildfire hazard mitigation that local municipalities can adopt. The amendment prohibits flammable roofs in wildfire-prone areas and requires ventilation openings to be covered by nonflammable material, among other provisions.

Commissioner Phil Henderson expressed concern about the potential cost of adopting the new rules throughout the county, saying the amendment could make new homes more expensive.

“I feel like it’s something we really have to think about the economics of,” Henderson said.

Rather than adopting changes throughout Deschutes County, Keith said staffers are planning to develop a map of particularly fire-prone areas, looking at factors like weather and flammable fuels in the area. Additionally, the county will spearhead a work group, with representatives from local fire districts, federal firefighters, local governments and other entities, that will provide a broader view of the hazards that fire poses in the county.

“At this point, it’s time to start rolling,” DeBone added.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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