Curry County commissioners Wednesday agreed to allow Community Development Director Carolyn Johnson hold a community workshop to discuss the wildland-urban interface — where the forest meets civilization — to better understand fire risk.
The agreement came after discussion during a Wednesday meeting in which the new Fire Threat Index maps were displayed and outline areas of the county that will likely be in danger in the next major wildfire.
Johnson would like to hold a workshop to show landowners of the fire danger on their property, outline regulations and defensible space needs and how compliance can affect their homeowner’s insurance.
The discussion is part of Commissioner Court Boice’s attempts to interest his co-commissioners in recovering from the Chetco Bar Fire and becoming more proactive regarding fire prevention. The Chetco Bar Fire burned 191,125 acres this summer in the burn scars of the Biscuit and Silver fires. The new fire scar lies 5 miles from the city of Brookings.
It’s all part of Senate Bill 360, the Oregon Forestland-Urban Interface Fire Protection Act of 1997, which says if a 40-acre parcel is zoned to have four homes on it, it needs extra fire protection — and legislation Curry County has more or less ignored in the 10 years since its enactment.
Requirements for new construction are extensive, and include a steady water supply or a 4,000-gallon tank on the premises, a 30-foot defensible space around buildings, a fire retardant roof, adequate road access, bridges that can accommodate heavy fire trucks and many others.
Areas in Curry County falling under those requirements include new homes along both banks of the Chetco and Winchuck rivers, Harbor Hills and the Cape Ferrelo area.
In the Chetco Bar Fire, all those areas except Harbor Hills were directly threatened by the conflagration.
Maps and education
The maps were crafted by the Oregon Department of Forestry in 2013 and updated by the Department of Geologic and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) in 2016.
Counties are not required to accept the new maps and the information they provide. Some citizens have pointed out if the maps aren’t part of the county’s codes, Curry County could be liable for damage incurred to citizens who weren’t informed about dangers on their property.
Carl King of Nesika Beach urged county commissioners to accept the new fire maps, saying it was important the board “not give a knee-jerk reaction and defeat everything in meetings.
“People in Curry County live in areas susceptible to slides and earthquakes, and we’re working with maps that are 20, 30 years old,” King said. “But here are maps that are more accurate.”
DOGAMI has new laser instruments called LIDAR that can see through dense foliage and craft better maps of the land below. Prior to that, the best technology was provided by radar, which gave a rough idea of where the land was.
The agency included the technology in other maps that showed detailed topography and depicted what areas might be adversely affected by an earthquake, tsunami, landslides and other natural disasters.
County commissioners declined to accept the landslide and liquefaction map after scores of citizens complained in a meeting last month that it would make much, if not all, of their property unbuildable. Commissioners instead decided to have community development staff merely advise landowners who apply for building permits about the maps and what they depict for their land.
Harbor Fire Chief John Brazil said the county can’t continue to ignore dangers that exist throughout the county.
“Dealing with life and safety issues is the responsibility of the board of commissioners,” Brazil said. “And Curry County is not acting on things. Curry County has not chosen to be part of mutual aid agreements with rural fire districts or Coos Forest Protective Association, and how Curry County responds to parcels in the county is not covered.”
An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 notices would have to be sent to property owners to let them know about the dangers of living in the wildland-urban interface.
Cape Ferrelo is the only district in South County where the chief is aggressively working with residents to create defensible space around homes to become a FireWise community.
“We’re required (to abide by this),” said new Emergency Services Coordinator Jeremy Dunmire of the Fire Protection Act, “but there’s not enough teeth (in county regulations) to fulfil the requirement.”
Commissioner Tom Huxley said the terms under SB 360 are non-negotiable. Huxley said he worries because if a fire starts on one of those specified properties and burns onto a neighbor’s lot, the first neighbor can owe up to $100,000 to pay for damages to the second. Huxley owns a home at the base of Harbor Hills.
“It was dictatorial, is what it was,” Huxley said of the bill’s requirements. “That $100,000 does get your attention.”
Dunmire said he recently had to visit a resident who was requesting a burn-barrel permit in Cape Ferrelo.
“The driveway was so overgrown the brush was touching the mirrors on the truck,” he said. “I could only see the front door of the house. Needless to say, they did not get a burn-barrel permit. And that home is not an anomaly. There are many places that are so overgrown.”
Brazil cited small, private bridges throughout the county as a major concern of his. He said he cannot find the history of any bridge inspection and is unsure where to locate one.
“Frankly, I get no response,” he said. “We have a regulation and we don’t follow through.
“If at 3 a.m., we respond with an 80,000-pound vehicle with volunteer firefighters and we come to a bridge, I have no clue,” he said. “I tell my guys to respond to pull someone out of a burning building and the bridge fails? I’m not going to be on that court stand — ‘Oh, by the way, I didn’t ask the county about inspections; oh, by the way, I didn’t know if the bridge met inspections; oh, by the way, I told the guys to just go to it.’ I don’t like being in that position.”
Johnson said she’s searched for inspection records on bridges on private roads, to no avail.
“Even without the fire, it’s hard to find an issue more important than this,” Boice said. “Our ground fuels ares a lightning rod for another fire. We need to do everything we can to help the public understand the risks we have.”
Reach Jane Stebbins at firstname.lastname@example.org .