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
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
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
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
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
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
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
What has changed is federal forest and rangeland
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
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
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
Our draft committee report should be completed in
Please remember, if we do not stand up for rural Oregon
no one will.