Big Oregon wildfire bill sees more setback than Democrats originally anticipated

As wildfires begin to erupt across the Oregon landscape and Salem lawmakers rush to pass critical legislation in the dying days of the 2021 session, this year’s big bill aimed at fighting against wildfires and freeing up nearly $ 200 million in funding for new programs is seeing more backlash than Democrats who control both chambers previously thought.

Senate Bill 762 would establish more than a dozen new programs to mitigate wildfires, strengthen recovery, help communities manage smoke conditions, and implement building code changes of the State for the development of structures in high risk areas of the Wildland-Urban interface (WUI). It would order the state to prepare comprehensive forest fire hazard maps that would be used to help implement changes to the law and state building codes by prioritizing certain communities. and areas most likely to be affected.

Smoke from wildfires turns the skies orange at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Oregon on September 8, 2020. Unprecedented wildfire conditions in Oregon and the Western United States sparked several fires during the Labor Day weekend.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

This is the follow-up bill to the work completed almost two years ago by Governor Kate Brown’s Council on Forest Fires, which submitted recommendations to amend state law and implement new agendas lawmakers are expected to pass into a bill in the 2020 short session. Republican walkouts on climate legislation killed this bill.

Now lawmakers are looking to enact much of those same provisions in SB 762 with a few extras.

But during a committee hearing on the bill on Monday morning, Republican House and Senate leaders called the bill “terrible,” saying the definitions in the legislation regarding the type of property constituting the The interface between wilderness and urban areas is too broad, and the implementation of defensible spatial measures goes too far in restricting the way people in rural Oregon develop their homes and properties.

Senatorial Minority Leader Fred Girod R-Stayton said he was concerned that changes to the Oregon building code could create additional expenses for people looking to develop properties in wooded areas. He points to the large number of households in his district encompassing Santiam Canyon, many of whom are still rebuilding their homes following widespread damage from the Beachie Creek Labor Day 2020 fire.

According to Girod, less than 25% of households in his district who applied for a permit to rebuild their homes after the 2020 fires were given the green light, and passing SB 762 would only add more paperwork to the process.

“This bill, I would call it the worst bill of the session. I think most of the support will come from people who live in urban centers, ”Girod said. “Every obstacle known to God and to man is put before these people so that they cannot rebuild, and it will be another. “

House Minority Leader Christine Drazan R-Canby said her problems with SB 762 stemmed from concerns about the process.

“I recognize that people tell me that (this bill) has been in the works for years – it was not a public process,” Drazan said. “I don’t know who was in the room for that, but these were not elected officials who sit here today and who have the opportunity to vote on this measure.”

Drazan told her colleagues there are some good elements to the bill and some “very disturbing” elements, but her biggest problem is with what she feels like a lack of public participation.

“A public hearing during this session in a part of this body, then a fully drafted bill before us today that lacks substantial contributions, is not the right place to start,” she said. declared.

Opposition to the bill came as news to Democrats who worked on the bill and negotiated with Republicans in a bid to garner bipartisan support.

Senator Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, led the charge on SB 762 for Democrats in the Senate this session. He has been a strong advocate for providing new solutions and adequate funding for state agencies to begin the work outlined in the Governor’s Council recommendations on wildfires.

According to Golden, he was somewhat shocked by the setback the bill is starting to see. He said comments made by his fellow Republicans at the committee hearing on Monday failed to consider that there will be a significant public contribution effort attached to rule-making that would result from the adoption of the draft. law.

“It was clear for a while that we were not going to a unanimous vote, but I was surprised by the heat I heard at today’s meeting. I think this comes from an effort to stoke fears that the bill would allow some sort of assault on rural lands far beyond preventing and combating these disastrous forest fires, ”Golden said. . “This is outright false… SB 762 creates the framework for rule-making that balances the rights of citizens, the needs of the community, and the imperative to save Oregon from destruction. Those affected will have a strong and effective voice throughout the process. “

Golden noted that by negotiating the bill, Republicans were able to add provisions to SB 762 that he saw as major concessions to bring it to a place where everyone could lend their support.

Some of these concessions include items such as updating the number of forest fire risk categories from three to five. Another creates an appeals process for homeowners who feel their property has been poorly mapped in the risk assessment or that they are poorly regulated.

Perhaps one of the most notable additions to the bill that Republicans fought for was an explicit ban on using the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s defensible space rules for regulatory purposes. of land use in the bill.

According to Golden, the bill included amended language on restricting land use decisions the state could make by establishing defensible space rules.

Golden also said the Wildfire Programs Advisory Council – a new commission created by the bill that will help monitor and correct the course of these programs – has been added to address concerns from Republican lawmakers.

“When they didn’t like the makeup of this board, we changed it to include multiple members they wanted,” Golden said. “The rhetoric I heard today puzzles me as to the value of negotiating with opponents of this bill. After modifying SB 762 to include some of their high priority suggestions, the pullback appears to be stronger than at the start of negotiations. I expected the needle to move the other way.

House Speaker Tina Kotek D-North Portland said she felt frustrated with some of the concerns expressed by her fellow Republican during the committee hearing on Monday and that many of their grievances were based on de misinformation or false equivalences.

“I think where people get confused is that they assume that any structure in a rural area will kind of have all of these new requirements put on it, and that’s just not true,” he said. said Kotek. “What frustrates me is this feeling that no one listened and that no one contributed – that’s not true. There has been a lot of commentary on this bill, it took two to three years to arrive at this general framework.

Republicans weren’t the only ones critical of the bill. Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, said she shares many of the concerns expressed by Republicans, particularly echoing that the definition of the forest-urban interface is too broad.

SB 762 exited the Joint Ways and Means Subcommittee on a 6-4 vote and is now heading to the full committee for another hearing. This meeting has not yet been scheduled although there are only six days left for the Legislative Assembly to conclude its business for the session.

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