An hour-long session preceding a public hearing on Oregon Senate Bill 360 answered most questions the audience had regarding their properties in the Jackson County Forestland-Urban Interface. When the official hearing began only a handful stayed, with three people giving oral testimony opposing the legislative bill. SB360 was written to cover extraordinary costs of fighting wildfire on properties not in compliance with the law. Landowners could be fined up to $100,000 if a fire started on their property and spread to surrounding land.
The public hearing on February 1 was held by the Jackson County Forestland-Urban Interface Classification Committee. After meeting in October 2010 to identify lots that fall into the criteria of high or extreme fire risk, the committee found a total of 13,784 lots that met the criteria and would be included in the interface area. More than 12,500 of those lots were considered to be extreme risk for wildfire. Jackson County is No. 1 in the state with these classifications, according to Oregon Department of Forestry Fire Prevention Specialist, Ashley DuBrey.
Prior to this public hearing, five meetings were held in different fire districts to answer questions and explain the process to landowners in the interface. Maps of the interface area were on display at the meetings. The hearing was the final step to collect public comment on those maps that were again displayed at the White City County Auditorium. The maps will be turned over to the county clerk after public input is compiled.
After the short presentation by DuBrey, Brian Ballou, ODF Fire Prevention Specialist and Spokesman, gave the audience a chance to ask questions before the hearing was opened. Questions ranged from, “What about old cars around my place?” to “What if lightning starts a fire on my property?” Ballou replied that cars are not included in the criteria for becoming compliant with SB360. And, yes, landowners are responsible when lightening causes a fire. Expressing some frustration, one woman said, “We are supposed to get this all done but there has been no burning for 15 consecutive days. I have burn piles and I want to comply.” The scope of questions and answers imparted a broad understanding of the issue to those in attendance.
Every five years self-certification forms are mailed by ODF to owners of lands affected by SB360. Landowners in Jackson County will receive new forms this winter. After fuel reduction on their properties, landowners must mail the self-certification form back to ODF. If ODF does not have a certification on file and a fire starts and spreads beyond the property, landowners may be fined from $1 up to $100,000 for extra fire suppression efforts such as additional helicopters or planes dropping fire retardant, said Ballou.
Most of the fuel reduction treatment under SB360 focuses on reducing thickets of brush such as blackberry brambles; removing dead vegetation; and moving firewood and lumber piles away from structures during fire season. Fuel reduction treatment does not need to extend beyond property lines and mature, healthy trees may not need removal. An audience member expressed concern over BLM land that backs up to his property and is a fire hazard. Ballou suggested anyone with that problem should contact BLM. Information on SB360 is online at (www.swofire.oregon.gov).
Some fuel reduction measures suggested by Ballou included clearing 50-feet around structures in extreme-risk and 30-feet in high-risk properties. The definition of a structure is 500 square-feet or more with at least one covered side. Barns are included. Shake roofs have different stipulations and decks should not have combustible materials stored underneath.
Defensible space around driveways needed clarification several times. Ballou said in order for fire trucks to respond they need access— a rectangle to get through growth. Vertical clearance should be 13 ½ feet with four feet of brush removed on either side of an average 12-foot driveway.
ODF will give free assessments and advice on what is needed to comply with SB360. ODF will also help landowners get certification, said Ballou. There are grants available of $400 per-acre to aid property owners in fuel reduction. To schedule assessments, get questions answered or to begin the grant process call 541-664-3328.
After discussing a possible surcharge of $25 that is written into SB360, Ballou got an idea of how landowners felt. Heated comments included, “We keep getting rules we don’t understand and are getting suffocated. We already pay taxes.” And, “We’ll be like Egypt one day and rebel.” (So far the surcharge has not been imposed.)
After the question and answer period, the hearing was formally opened by committee chair, Jim Wolf. Walter Fitzgerald of Sams Valley testified he has been on his property for 60-years and is sensitive to laws that affect his private property rights. Insurance companies do not like the word extreme, he said, citing some past difficulties with one company. Fitzgerald objected to the amount of the possible liability ($100,000) because it could affect the aged, unemployed and people with financial problems. He also feels SB360 should be repealed. Rules, rules, rules, rules—“It comes to a point,” he said, “when someone else is managing the property instead of me.”
Commenting last, Lorna Lane, a White City widow who lost half of her income when her husband died, said, “We are overtaxed and overruled. Fire departments already can come out and fine for negligence if you cause a fire. Southern Oregonians do not appreciate Salem and Portland running us.”
By Margaret Bradburn
Of the Independent