What if we don’t want to protect our homes?

We have discussed the role of home sites and homeowners in reducing wildfire risk.  In doing so I think we have made an implicit assumption that homeowners care about reducing wildfire risk.  Here is some evidence that protecting their homes from fires is less important to some people than protecting them from the government.

Oregon has adopted new legislation following the barrage of fire storms across Oregon in September 2020 that burned more than 1 million acres and destroyed 4,000 homes, many of them in rural areas.  It assigned tax lots one of five wildfire risk levels, and updated and refined the state’s “wildland-urban interface” map.  Starting next year, property owners on tax lots designated “high” or “extreme” risk that also fall within the updated wildland-urban interface must comply with minimum defensible space requirements.

“(The new map) generated so much pushback from angry homeowners that officials abruptly retracted it, saying they had not done enough local outreach before publicizing the ambitious project.

The rapid reversal, announced late Thursday, capped weeks of mounting frustration in mostly rural areas as the map emerged as a new flashpoint for conservatives who call it government overreach and “climate change evangelism.”

Fierce opposition bubbled up at community meetings prior to the state’s step back. Residents and some local officials worried it would lead to insurance rate increases or coverage loss, while others bridled at new mandates for defensible space and rules for future construction that flow from the map’s designations.

One information session in the conservative southwest corner of the state was canceled after someone threatened violence.”

There can certainly be legitimate concerns about factual errors, but this is being overshadowed by this new norm for how to respond to anything the government does that tells people what to do (especially if it’s because of climate change).  And just like Covid, if you leave it up to individual “personal responsibility,” some people’s lack of that will affect other people’s lives.  Achieving societal agreement on fuel reduction may be another casualty of this ongoing breakdown of social order.

10 thoughts on “What if we don’t want to protect our homes?”

  1. My Oregon property, 1.5 acres, was deemed High Risk and in a WUI zone. One of my concerns was that the map did not distinguish my property, where I’ve done significant defensible space work, from neighbors who haven’t done such work. Also, many properties were designated as Moderate Risk that are very similar to neighboring High Risk properties. Interestingly, most of the adjacent USFS ground was deemed at Extreme Risk.

    Here’s a detailed description of how the designations were made.

    • That’s because the map is a hazard map NOT a risk map. The map takes into account the relative likelihood of wildfire burning based on historical wildfire occurrence patterns, weather conditions, and fuel mapping. The defensible space that you performed is temporary (trees grow back) but the location of your home and how exposed it is to wildfire is permanent (think flood risk map). Additionally, the defensible space you performed or any home hardening actions you may take would make your house less susceptible to a loss from wildfire but would not change the probability that a fire would reach your house. In order to change the probability of fire reaching your house, you would have to implement fuel disturbances at a much large scale (e.g. wildfire).

  2. When the people writing the rules are out of touch with reality the rules will fail!

    As in when new homes are built the landscape is installed at the same time. So the older the house, the more cooling the mature vegetation around the house provides and in general and the greater the value that vegetation lends to total property value when it comes time to sell the place.

    And in the PNW in the past we never built our houses with air conditioning like homes further south do. so up here if we create defensible space around a home without defining limits to what can be cleared in order to keep the houses passive cooling system functional, then homeowners not only have to destroy the entire garden that was designed to match the house, but they have to spend tens of thousands on installing air conditioning which will massively increase stress on an already antiquated electrical grid that doesn’t have any extra electricity available during a heat wave in the first place.

    So if you try to write laws that place too much of an undue burden on reducing how habitable/valuable a home is, then you will fail to implement those laws.

    Furthermore, in the Holiday fire on McKenzie River in Oregon I saw countless examples of houses that didn’t clear the old trees around their house still standing and way too many houses with zero vegetation around them burn to the ground because in high winds under an evacuation order a single ember a mile ahead of the fire landing on a roof shingle can burn a whole house down. But that same ember landing in a tree canopy above the house never ignites the house. As in a house is the most flammable thing in the forest!

    And this sheltering affect from wind borne embers is especially true in California with Coast Live Oak. Both my dad’s house and several friends homes didn’t burn down because the burning embers landed on the oak trees over there roof and not on their roof. I’ve seen the burn patterns of this with my own eyes! Protecting a house from wildfire is farm more complex than the simpleton stupidity of creating defensible space.

    If we want to stop homes from burning down the number one thing we need to do is address climate change. The other thing we need to do is finance the cost of and enter into the fire code a requirement for rapidly deployable metal fabric tents on the roofs of all homes. So when the evacuation order hits you don’t have to worry about a single ember far from the main run of the fire burning your house down because there was no one around to put a hose on it. That’s way more intelligent than the defensible space BS that as always only works with mild to moderate fire intensity and does nothing to protect from high wind, high intensity fire.

    • Deane.. you raise a number of interesting points and observations. We’re addressing climate change in the IRA bill but it may be awhile before we see the results (and of course, there were wildfires before climate change). I like your idea of the metal fabric tents.. but don’t embers get into all kinds of other vents, sills,etc.? Maybe a whole house tent? My insurance company provides wildfire prep services via Wildfire Defense Systems (or another company) at no extra cost.

      • Yes, whole house tents and rooftop irrigation to protect the most flammable thing in our urban wildlands interface!

        We need massive federal funding taken from the military budget in the name of homeland defense for this!

        California has lost over a 100K homes in the past dozen years and they’re literally forcing insurance companies to not leave the state when in reality they should instead be working with insurance companies to invest hundreds of billions in rapidly deployable whole house metal fabric tents, as well as fully integrating homeowner insurance company firefighters into greater firefighting planning efforts so our wildland firefighters can stay focused on the actual fire rather than tending to ridiculously expensive and highly flammable houses.

        Also as my dad and all his rural neighbors had to learn the hard way, they need to rewrite building codes so supporting infrastructure like water tanks, pumphouses, utilities, etc have greater resistance to wildfire.

        So many people may be grateful to find out their homes survived a wildfire, but when all your supporting infrastructure is wiped out, you’re still looking at a year or more before you can finally go home. And that might not seem as hard as building the box shaped part of a house, it’s actually way harder and way more hassle than you might think to build an entire house worth of supporting infrastructure after a wildfire.

  3. People know government does not care about peoples thoughts , feelings , such as a favorite tree parked growing and overhanging their front porch….government says cut it down – burn the forest to save the forest …what does a title of “Forest Service” mean. Isn’t that “serve the forest” = make it prolifically abundant ? The more articles presented about forest service operations past and future , it begins to make no logical sense. Do this, no don’t do that , something called “forest resilency”!
    A book an author with a sophisticated version of all we need do is use some kind of made up 21st century superglue theory = problem fixed and we still have our careers aka no accountability. A bureauracy probably overly-bloated is not going to fix what it created…there is nothing particularly intelligent above what a high schooler could have come up with which for free is : to save the forest and make it resilent = we are saving trees A & B by cutting and burning trees C-Z. If that sounds ridiculous the fact is the forest service is removing quantities of unkown quality genetic species while pointing at the superior size of tree A & B as the reasoning. On a scientific level boys and girls the forest service is lost. Whoever coined the term resilence is an idiot personified! Its a sales pitch , nothing more . If the forest service did nothing but just let the forest grow and get back to basics of the 1960 Sustainable Forest Act it would be an improvement. Take the New Mexico Hermits Peak Disaster where the forest service was engaged in prescribed burning to make the forest more resilient to fire. The event to scientically burn 1280 acres- ended in 300,000+ acres burned not as they planned and their science remained an uncontrollable unstopable raging roaring evergree roast that only mother nature finally appeared and put out their fire resilence plan. Since then in the greater area plentiful rains have fallen and all the forest that the forest service didnt destroy is now very well rehydrated. Scattered trees in the remaing forest ecology did succumb to the drought , that natural selection that man cannot see , would in fact have some science , if and facts now lived had nothing been done , had the forest service just taken a vacation or retire and admit they are just guessing so they get their next paycheck , the entire forest and watershed would now be in rather beautiful and very green conditions. Natures abundance destroyed called FOREST RESILIENCY. Defined so that a forest can recover quickly from a fire. As Ronald Reagan said ” we are the government and we are here to help you”! Government is too big he said in 1980. Now its even bigger , more costly, and has been engaged in a bs fix it after it broke. Never accountable , going to do internal reviews to see that such and such never happens again..kind of explanatory thesis because their the experts…kuddos to the people in various terrains who are saying ” no more “. If you look at the private corporate forest of Weyerheuser and Georgia Pacfic , their forest are growing in a sustainable productivity rather than a resilient unproductivity .

  4. Jon, I think you have accepted the AP’s framing and taken it one step further.
    “being overshadowed by this new norm for how to respond to anything the government does that tells people what to do (especially if it’s because of climate change). And just like Covid, if you leave it up to individual “personal responsibility,” some people’s lack of that will affect other people’s lives. Achieving societal agreement on fuel reduction may be another casualty of this ongoing breakdown of social order.”

    Here’s another narrative would be: SW Oregonians (and anyone East of the Cascades) have always been treated as second-class citizens by the powers that be in the Williamette Valley. They have suffered wildfires for years and been told “it’s natural” and “you shouldn’t live there.” After the 2020 Wildfires (on the West Side) the legislature woke up (it happened to us!) and started a variety of things they thought would help. But the poorer SW Oregon counties (environmental justice concerns) may be required to make improvements or pay costs they can’t afford. Perhaps they do not trust the State.https://www.ocpp.org/2020/08/07/poverty-oregon/

    That’s another way of looking at it. And as it turns out, actually people who are the furthest from being conservative (e.g. Breckenridge) also reject being told what to do in the case of fuels around their homes.

    Here’s something on that in a good story from CPR https://www.cpr.org/2021/01/26/stronger-building-codes-and-other-rules-can-save-homes-from-wildfires-so-why-doesnt-colorado-have-a-statewide-law-mandating-them/
    Finally at the end of the AP story “Those who specialize in wildfires and the insurance industry said fears that coverage would be reduced or canceled specifically because of Oregon’s new risk map were unfounded.”

    Insurers “have way better maps. They’re not going to just take the state’s word on the maps,” said Michael Wara, director of the Climate Energy Policy Program at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment. ”

    I give Wara lots of credit for being present on wildfire twitter, but a Stanford Law Prof telling me that the State’s intentions are honorable.. let’s just say I wouldn’t find it a compelling argument. It’s always interesting to notice when peoples’ concerns are seen to be legitimate and when they are dismissed, by whom, and on what grounds.

    If insurers have way better maps… then why does the State need maps? It seems to my simple brain that either a) they are wasting tax dollars or b) they plan to use them for something.

    Back to our basic trust topic.. 1. say why you are doing something 2. Let your actions match your words 3. Involve the public each step of the way 4. Include a step of ground-truthing any maps produced. This is all well known to the public involvement people at OSU and probably U of O. So the State blew this process IMHO. That’s my narrative. But I’m not fingerpointing, this stuff isn’t easy.

    • Yes, your alternative framing of “second class citizens” is the “grievance” approach favored by Trumpists that pits us vs them and blames them. I know it’s not just conservatives, but that was the point of this article, and I thought it put our fuels reduction debates into a different political context than what we usually see. I did have the same reaction to the insurance company maps revelation. I would question any laws or policies that keep those from public view.

  5. we are indeed in interesting times. Insurance companies are correctly identifying the rising fire risk and sea levels, making insuring and thus owning these homes untenable. After decades of lower risk, homeowners in the Sierra Nevada can not get coverage by major insurance companies, and are forced to use the state-optioned FAIR plan. The free market would make a correction to houses in high hazard areas, but the government is/ has been bailing these areas out, with emergency services and forms of gov. support for insurance/ treatment. For everyone who questions the sanity of living on the coast, there are those who question living alongside western forests or, indeed, flood or earthquake zones. We are all at risk. This really calls for collective solutions to both protecting communities and the bigger issue of climate change.

    • “Collective solutions” is why we have governments, isn’t it? Often because the free market isn’t working equitably. This seems to be the opposite, but I suppose it could be considered “unfair” for random people to lose their homes, and maybe it would be a better subsidy to buy them out rather than pay them to rebuild.


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