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Oregon Wildfire Protection

Senator Doug Whitsett
R- Klamath Falls, District 28

Phone: 503-986-1728    900 Court St. NE, S-303, Salem, Oregon 97301
Email: sen.dougwhitsett@state.or.us
Website: http://www.leg.state.or.us/whitsett
State Seal
E-Newsletter 12/19/13


Last week, I traveled to Bend to participate in a two-day Large Fire Review Committee meeting for the Department of Forestry. The Department endured widespread landowner criticism of its efforts to protect privately owned forest lands from wildfires during the 2012 fire season.

Oregon law requires Oregon forest and rangeland owners to provide fire protection on their land. Most owners deliver the required protection by paying assessments to the state of Oregon and to fire protection associations. Their expectation is that the Department will provide professional, accountable and effective efforts to control wildfires on the private property it is being paid to protect.

The assessments are similar to paying taxes to a fire control district to protect our homes. Homeowners have the expectation that firemen will timely respond to a blaze in their home, and make professional, accountable and reasonably effective efforts to put the fire out.

These taxes and assessments do not provide fire insurance that will pay for casualty losses caused by a fire. That protection is acquired only by purchasing fire insurance. However, the public should rightfully expect consequences any time that the fire suppression efforts that they pay for are so unprofessional, untimely or unaccountable that they unnecessarily place human life or property at risk.

Some of the harshest Department criticism came from landowners who had paid for protection of their lands involved in the 90,000 acre Barry Point wildfire, near Lakeview in 2012.

The Review Committee was formed as the direct result of Legislative hearings that we requested to publicly discuss that Barry Point fire. The Committee was generally made up of private and industrial landowners, Department of Forestry personnel, and folks elected to represent the Lakeview area. It was charged with achieving several objectives.

Many landowners and firefighters as well believe that communication with the Department both during and after the fire was at best inadequate. They assert that the communication failure unnecessarily endangered human life and property.

The Committee recommended establishing clear expectations and professional standards for communicating and coordination with landowners before the fire season. Those expectations and standards must be met during and after fires that occur on protected lands. I believe that substantial failure to achieve those standards and expectations should result in significant consequences.

Many landowners hold the perception that the Department simply abandoned its primary responsibility to protect their land during the multi-jurisdictional Barry Point fire. They feel that state employees failed to assert their authority to make protection of private lands their first priority while federal fire managers were in charge.

The Committee recommended several different ways to ensure that the Department establish, assert and maintain control of the fire suppression efforts on protected lands. Some of these proposals may require the insertion of specific new language in interagency contracts and agreement that make it clear that Department employees shall be responsible for minimizing losses on protected private property.

Most landowners were disappointed in the Department’s efforts to assist them in making immediate damage repairs after the fire. Further, there was little help offered to find and coordinate resources for the rehabilitation of their burned-over property after the fire.

The Committee discussed creating a state funded fire damage repair account that could be quickly accessed to help pay for critically needed repairs such as erosion control, damaged fencing and removal of dangerous trees. We also suggested specific ways for the Department to disseminate accurate and timely resource information to landowners following a fire including preparing an “after the fire” manual to provide “one stop shopping” to find resources to help rehabilitate the damaged land.

The Committee unanimously recommended that the Department of Forestry adopt, and put into practice, a written policy clearly stating that the avoidable loss of a single acre of resource land to a wildfire is unacceptable.

Finally, landowners were rightfully upset and angered by the State’s response to their claims for damages that they allege were caused by Department negligence. They believe that negligence resulted in unnecessary damage to their property. Each aggrieved landowners filed individual specific tort claims. The original blanket letters denying the claims were identical and each contained the same grievous typographical error accepting state responsibility but denying the claim. The following letters correcting the typographical error were also essentially identical.

The state of Oregon self-insures against liability claims. The Department of Administrative Services’ division of risk management acts as the State’s liability insurance agency and handles all tort claims against the state. The head of that division presented at the Committee meeting.

She described the division policies requiring individual claim investigation including interviews with agency representatives and the claimants, on-site inspections and careful evaluation of the merits of each component of each claim. These policies were clearly not followed on Barry Point fire tort claims because no interviews with claimants or on-site inspections occurred prior to the issuance of the identical denial of claim letters.

Following the Legislative hearings, the risk management division reopened most of the claims for further investigation. Landowners agreed that these Department of Justice inquiries were cursory at best. However, it was my understanding, as well as the understanding of several other committee members, that these inquiries were ongoing at the time of the December 13, 2013 presentation.

We were misled. At the time of the presentation, all of the claims had already been once again denied by letters that were once again essentially identical and that were dated and signed the day before the presentation.

In my opinion, the division of risk management could not have been less responsive, more inaccurate, or more passive aggressive, if that had been their primary purpose. I believe that the Department of Administrative Services must cause its risk management division to learn, and begin to practice, at least rudimentary customer service skills.

I have no doubt that the more than 25,000 miles of common boundary between the lands protected by the Department, and land owned and managed by the federal government, is the Oregon Department of Forestry’s greatest liability. The preponderance of large wildfires start on federally managed land. Those fires are driven by the untenable and dangerous accumulation of combustible fuels. That accumulation of ground and ladder fuels is the direct result of decades of failed federal management.

The federal fire management policy too often allows fires to burn without concerted suppression efforts. This may be because many federal forest managers believe that fire is “natural and good”, and that the forest resources have little inherent value.

The increasing frequency and severity of these “good and natural” fires is often blamed on global warming, climate change and severe and prolonged drought. These contradictory claims are easily refuted.

Global temperatures have not measurably increased for nearly fifteen years. In fact, a cursory analysis of available data clearly shows that temperatures, as measured by satellite and oceanic monitors, have demonstrated significant cooling since the late 1990’s.

Empirical data shows that severe weather events are becoming less frequent. Most professional climatologists agree that less severe weather events is expected as prevailing temperatures cool. Recent drought conditions in the arid west are no more severe than in past decades.

What has changed is federal forest and rangeland management!

The unchecked accumulation of fuels has ensured that fires on federal lands too often evolve into uncontrollable conflagrations that cross ownership boundaries with impunity. It is an untenable liability to share more than 25,000 miles of boundary with such a neighbor.

I believe that our criticism and close scrutiny of the Department of Forestry has helped their performance. Moreover, the Legislature provided them with significantly more resources for initial strike fire- fighting. Even though 2013 was the worst fire season in decades, there was much less landowner criticism of the Department’s efforts.

They experienced incredible success in quickly putting out fires that started on protected land. They asserted their authority much more effectively on the larger multi-jurisdictional fires that ignited mainly on federally owned land. That effort forced the federal fire managers to employ more aggressive fire suppression methods that ultimately saved a lot of forest resources from incineration.

Our draft committee report should be completed in January.

Please remember, if we do not stand up for rural Oregon no one will.

Best Regards,




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