Greg Wentzel, of West Salem, searches through the remains of his vacation home in Detroit, Oregon with his children, Ozzy, 13, and Destiny, 8, in September 2020. A plan from state Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, could lend state support to neighborhoods hoping to band together to prevent wildfires and property damage. (Photo by Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Neighbors hoping to join together to prevent wildfires could get a boost from the state and rewards from insurers under legislation being proposed by state Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland.

Golden discussed his plans for the tentatively named Neighborhood Wildfire Protection Act at a meeting of the Senate Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery Committee Thursday.

The bill would direct the state fire marshal to help neighborhoods organize and register with the national Firewise Neighborhoods program and eventually compel insurers to reward policy holders in those neighborhoods with lower premiums or the assurance that policies would be renewed without significant increases in the years ahead. 

The Firewise program includes a set of criteria for organizing neighbors to collaborate on risk assessments and wildfire mitigation projects. It’s administered by the National Fire Protection Agency, a nonprofit based in Massachusetts. 

A Firewise Neighborhood can consist of a minimum of eight dwellings and a maximum of 2,500. Houses, cabins and mobile homes count as single dwellings. Each unit in an apartment or condominium is considered a single-family dwelling, so a 10-unit apartment building would count as 10 dwellings. 

Most homes damaged by wildfire are ignited by embers or burning debris that lands on gutters, vents, decks and dry grass, according to the agency. 

To register with the program, neighbors must first form a board or committee that includes representation from an official of a local or state fire agency. The committee identifies the boundaries of the neighborhood and obtains a wildfire risk assessment from a local fire department or state forestry agency that must be updated every five years. 

Next, the committee creates an action plan, including a list of wildfire mitigation projects around the neighborhood, and suggestions for individual homeowners to minimize risk. The plan, updated every three years, needs to include a timeline for completing and maintaining projects in high-risk areas. 

Such projects could include removing flammable vegetation around buildings, clearing any combustible material such as tree limbs, dry leaves and grass and sealing any gaps in roofs and exterior walls with fire-resistant materials.  

Much of the work is voluntary, and each household in the Firewise Neighborhood is expected to contribute a minimum of one hour of work annually.

Since the program started in 2002, nearly 1,000 communities in 40 states have joined and about 80% are still participating, according to the agency’s site. 

It’s possible that Firewise Neighborhoods requiring significant financial assistance could qualify for certain state grants to pay for projects and time, Golden said in an interview with the Capital Chronicle.

But much of the investment will need to come from residents and property owners in high-risk neighborhoods. 

“There are some tough realities that climate change is bringing us, and this is one of them,” He said. “We are facing absolute catastrophe beyond what the state can pay for if we aren’t proactive. Government can’t do this alone.”

The city of Ashland has already invested in getting neighborhoods registered in the Firewise program, and trained volunteers to help with risk assessments and planning. 

Golden suggested this should be a model for other communities. 

“What I’d like to see is this implemented on the ground by local people,” he said. 

Golden also hopes to work with the State Insurance Commissioner to make it “as probable as possible” that certification would lead to favorable treatment by insurance companies, such as lower premiums, or the guarantee that policies can be renewed at reasonable rates. 

Andrew Stolfi, insurance commissioner at the Oregon Department of Business and Consumer Services, discussed plans at Thursday’s meeting for legislation to require that insurers consider investments that property owners make in defensible space and home hardening efforts when assigning a risk rating and in underwriting criteria.

Golden said he hoped lower premiums or insurance rates would incentivize property owners to take proactive measures, including creating Firewise Neighborhoods. 

What remains to be seen is the state’s authority to push the insurance industry in that direction, he said. 

“I imagine we’ll see court cases over it, but we need their partnership,” he said.


Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Alex Baumhardt, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.