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SB 762 Disaster Rollout: What Were They Thinking?

By Julie Niles-Fry

I found out about SB 762, the fire map debacle law, through Facebook.  I checked my mail pile for “the letter” from the Oregon Department of Forestry and read the dreaded word: “Extreme.”  My first thoughts came rapid-fire: “Our property is the poster child of fire safe”; “what were the thoughts that created this punitive bill?” “what type of planning went into this bill?” and “what were they thinking?”

I first spoke to our fire chief and learned that he did not agree with SB 762 because it takes away local control, was punitive and more. Now I wondered, “who” was thinking when they created this?  I discovered Rep. Pam Marsh via Facebook threads and scheduled a zoom with her to find out how a liberal thinks during the creation of a bill.

I spoke with Rep. Pam Marsh on July 29 and learned the following:

Pam was elected to office in 2016 and has served three terms representing the Ashland area in the Oregon House; her family owns a business on “extreme” rated land.

In 2018 Southern Oregon had six weeks of choking smoke in the valleys that were brought by the California and Canada fires. Ashland had to shut down, and it crumpled the city’s tourist economy. People started asking, “What are we going to do? Is this a place that we can/should still live?”

Marsh held a meeting at SOU for citizens and had speakers present on the forest, health issues, wildfires, climate change and a few others. Over 400 residents attended.

In 2019, Gov. Kate Brown set up a Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response, on which Pam served. The Council was comprised of a diverse group: citizens, insurance companies, landowners, county commissioners, health care professionals, etc.

In 2020, 1 million acres of land burned, along with 4,000 homes.

In 2021 the state allocated money to Wildfire Suppression.

SB 762 was created as a “broad bill” that was intended to address:

  • Forest Practices
  • Forest Restoration
  • Smoke
  • Defensible Space
  • Suppression
  • Increasing staffing for fire agencies, ODF, OSFM and others.

Rep. Marsh doesn’t see that the building codes will change as part of the implementation of SB 762 because R327 is the code that’s already in place.

Here is information about homeowner insurance and wildfires from the Oregon Department of Insurance:

1. Did she read the entire bill?

Yes, Pam read the bill and was on the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response but wasn’t at the table when they put the whole bill together.

2. What was her understanding of it when she voted?

A. That this is a defensible space program that will incentivize and provide resources to people to make their land as fire safe as possible to avoid potential catastrophic outcomes due to wildfires.

B. That this bill would enact codes that would make new dwellings and buildings as safe as possible for the future since fire risk is not going away.

3. What ramifications did or didn’t she think would come out of SB 762?

There was no committee that analyzed ramifications or consequences, as the intent was to try and protect everyone from wildfires by creating defensible space.

4. Was there a discussion during this four-year process where officials analyzed the possible consequences of SB 762?

They didn’t analyze the consequences to land/home/business owners other than if people didn’t create defensible space, there could be more destruction.

5. Before voting, did she speak to her local fire chief to ask him how he felt about local control being taken away and given to the Oregon State Fire Marshall (OSFM)?

Yes, and Chief Horton was on the task force and very supportive of SB 762. Pam does not feel the bill transfers local control to the Oregon State Fire Marshall (OSFM). She advises reading the “Physical Space” section of the bill again.

6. What has she learned since Oregonians received their notices and are coming forth with concerns?

A. The Wildfire Interface Map: Officials need to reevaluate how that map was used. She says the original intent of the map was only to see scientifically where wildfire is most likely to occur so ODF could identify where we need more defensible space.

B. Insurance:

I. The Oregon state insurance commissioner said the agency didn’t believe there would be an impact on people’s insurance rates due to this bill.

II. To Pam’s knowledge, she doesn’t think that the commissioner’s office contacted insurance companies to discuss protecting the homeowner, renter, business, etc. from increased rates or the cancellation of their insurance.

III. The state needs to work on getting assurances from insurance companies that rates won’t get raised because of SB 762. Since the insurance companies already know the wildfire risk in states, insurance rates shouldn’t change because of this map.

C. Communication: Marsh says state officials must work on communication and didn’t know that the letter that was sent out would be presented the way it was; it should’ve been more explanatory.

In a nutshell, from Pam’s perspective, the bill is good and was written to create a defensible space program to help landowners reduce fuels to reduce wildfires or the spread of wildfires.

Opinion and Analysis: My thoughts and knowledge of government were confirmed; the rush of coming up with a “solution” leads to big gaps in critical thinking.  A business does a business plan; government does not.   Had this been thought of like a business plan, legislators would have identified potential consequences and ramifications, demanded that the Oregon insurance commissioner do actual research on potential liabilities (instead of accepting a “belief” that there wouldn’t be any impact to constituents), insisted on a comprehensive communication plan, used a non-government funded map company and more.

Now is the best time to flood the boxes and ears of every representative in the state.  I want Oregon to REPEAL SB 762 and for the state to prioritize use of the programs already allocated to wildfire protection measures.  A restart should begin with an analysis of risks vs. benefits, potential insurance ramifications and consequences and a map (if there must be one) created by an independent expert mapping company.  The big elephant on the range is the coding process underway.  Cart before horse, once again.

A friend called me last week and asked, “Do you think this is tied to a federal program?”

Then “What were they thinking?” started making sense.  Follow the money.  I contacted the USDA Forest Service in Washington, D.C., to see if and when any money was allocated to Oregon for the federal wildfire crisis effort.  I received the report: Oregon is receiving $41.3 million from 2022-2024 for Central Oregon, identified as “most closely aligned with high-risk firesheds.” Was SB 762 tied to the funds Oregon is receiving?  Did the feds require Oregon to create a bill like SB 762 to get that funding?  Is there more funding coming to Oregon we don’t know about?

Julie Niles-Fry and her family moved to Wimer in 2002. Julie served as an elected School Board Director and District Budget Committee Chair, along with leadership roles in community and youth-to-career endeavors. Actively involved in issues regarding education and citizens rights, Julie enjoys helping the community make their voice heard.