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Oregon Faces Opposition To Its Plan To Prevent Catastrophic Wildfires

NOEL KING, HOST:

Wildfires in Oregon killed nine people and destroyed thousands of homes a year ago, so lawmakers decided to act. They came up with a plan to prevent another similar catastrophe, but some people there don't like it. Here's Cassandra Profita with Oregon Public Broadcasting.

CASSANDRA PROFITA, BYLINE: Crews with Northwest Youth Corps normally work in the wilderness, maintaining trails and managing weeds. But today, they're surrounded by houses in the city of Eugene.

(SOUNDBITE OF POWER TOOLS WHIRRING)

PROFITA: They're basically doing extreme yardwork in a neighborhood forest that's loaded with invasive blackberry and fallen tree limbs. Youth Corps Director Jeff Parker says all that brush could fuel a fire and send it moving faster and hotter toward people's homes.

JEFF PARKER: A lot of the homeowners associations up here have these natural areas. That's what makes them attractive. This one, in particular, that we're looking at was really loaded with fuel.

PROFITA: Clearing that fuel is part of a larger new program that now has millions of dollars in funding through Oregon's new wildfire protection plan. It's focused on areas known as the wildland-urban interface, where forests meet houses and fire risk goes up.

PARKER: So our objective here is to do fire prevention so that if fire does roll through, it doesn't have the catastrophic impact, the mass displacement of people and the impact on the community.

PROFITA: Oregon's sweeping new wildfire law also pays for more firefighting and large-scale forest management, but the most contentious part is how to prevent homes from burning. Democratic Senator Jeff Golden led the effort to pass the plan. It calls for mapping fire risk across the state and making new rules for fire-prone areas.

JEFF GOLDEN: We have an existential crisis here, and it's going to take some give on all our parts, including give on what I'd most like to see around my individual house.

PROFITA: Golden says high-risk areas will need to clear vegetation around homes and build with fire-resistant materials, which could raise the cost.

GOLDEN: I guarantee you there are going to be some people who aren't happy with it, but the urgency is such that we got to move fast.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "TILLAMOOK TODAY")

BETSY JOHNSON: If Senator Golden thinks for a minute that I'm going to cut down the 200-year-old, 200-foot-tall old-growth ponderosa pine in my yard, he is mistaken.

PROFITA: Senator Betsy Johnson, also a Democrat, criticized the plan on a radio show earlier this year. It's not clear yet which trees would need to be cut, but Johnson is wary of the new rules.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "TILLAMOOK TODAY")

JOHNSON: I'm just not sure that I want unseen, unaccountable, unelected bureaucrats dictating the future of the state of Oregon and how we all are going to live on our own property.

PROFITA: Because of that pushback, lawmakers are allowing property owners and industry groups to weigh in on the rules and help figure out which areas need mandatory wildfire regulations. Experts say there's clear evidence of what helps prevent homes from burning. A perfect example - Mary Bradshaw's house.

MARY BRADSHAW: We were shocked. Having seen what the fire did, we really didn't expect it to be standing.

PROFITA: But it's perfectly untouched, unlike all the surrounding homes that burned in the Beachie Creek wildfire. Its green metal roof gleams in the midst of scorched earth and a towering stand of dead, black and brown trees.

BRADSHAW: We built it with fire in mind, although we never thought we would have a fire.

PROFITA: Her home has concrete siding, a cement porch and no gutters, air vents or plants nearby - all key fireproofing measures that experts recommend. Over the next year, Oregonians will be debating which of those recommendations should be required and where.

For NPR News, I'm Cassandra Profita in Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOSE WHO RIDE WITH GIANTS' "THE MOUNTAIN SEED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.