Low Snowpack means Oregon might not be Insurable for Wildfire

This year's frightfully warm winter, as predicted by climate change models, means there will be less snowpack to buffer forest fires during fire season. The repercussions might include losing wildfire insurance for the state.

Oregon might lose wildfire insurance

State, private timberlands owners wait and see after consecutive bad fire seasons

By Taylor W. Anderson (@taylorwanderson) and Dylan J. Darling (@DylanJDarling) / The Bulletin

Published Feb 23, 2015 at 12:11AM

SALEM — Private timberland owners and the state officials charged with protecting those lands are both in the dark over how consecutive bad fire seasons will change the way Oregon pays to fight catastrophic wildfires.

For nearly four decades, Oregon has purchased an insurance policy that kicks in when wildfires are catastrophic. It’s a unique setup similar to car insurance.

The state has paid a premium of around $1 million and a $25 million deductible before the company chips in. The policy has saved the state as much as $46 million since 1973.

With a month left before spring, the only thing that is certain is that the state and landowners most likely will have to pony up if they want the insurance this year, if Oregon gets a policy at all.

The state sent its top forester, Doug Decker, across the Atlantic to meet face to face with brokers from Lloyd’s of London early this month.

Even now, Decker says, the future is uncertain.

“They’ll be asking themselves the question what can they afford to provide, and we’ll be asking the question what can we afford to pay,” Decker said.

Lloyd’s officials said they don’t comment on individual policies, but Decker said about a dozen brokers are crunching numbers and other factors to see whether the company still finds Oregon worth insuring.

They’re likely to take into account what the state says is its ability to extinguish about 95 percent of fires before they grow larger than 10 acres . They’ll consider the cameras Oregon places in remote areas to scout for fires.

But there’s another factor Lloyd’s may consider that is working against the state: snowpack. Right now, there isn’t much.

“It’s abysmal,” said Kathie Dello, deputy director of the Oregon Climate Service. “The outlook of the next few months is warmer than normal. It looks pretty, it doesn’t look good for recovery in terms of snowpack.”

Mountains in the Northwest that are typically well-coated by snow are bare, and snow levels are close to record lows throughout the Cascades. Precipitation levels are near normal, but it’s been too warm to snow.

Snowpack provides moisture and ground coverage in summer months as temperatures rise. It doesn’t look like much of the West will get that buffer this year.

There are other factors that go into whether land is vulnerable to wildfires, such as soil moisture and midsummer rain, but those are hard to predict.

Decker described his trip to London as absolutely necessary to even give Oregon a shot at insurance coverage for this fire season. Even so, it may be April before the state knows whether it’s on the hook if Oregon has yet another bad fire season.

“We just have to remember that we’ve had two catastrophic (fire seasons) here, and I would say that it’s not a sure thing that we will be successful in finding that sweet spot,” Decker said.

The insurance question doesn’t only cover public land. Central Oregon’s timberland owners chip in $1.70 per acre under the policy, and they’re waiting to hear how much they’ll be charged this year.

“I have no idea what the dollar figures will be,” said Chris Johnson, vice president of timber operations for Fidelity National Timber Resources, a company based in Whitefish, Montana, that has an office in Bend.

A subsidiary of the company, Cascade Timberlands, just sold most of the forestland that burned last June in the 6,908-acre Two Bulls Fire near Bend. The fire was just one in what ballooned into a big year that is likely to have soaked up the entire $25 million insurance deductible for a second straight season when the state finishes counting costs.

Cascade Timberlands sold about 200,000 acres of timberland in Central Oregon — in areas northwest of Bend, near La Pine and Gilchrist and by Chemult and Chiloquin.

While the wildfire insurance helped the Oregon Department of Forestry last year cover some costs, it didn’t help Cascade Timberlands and other private timber holders recoup their losses.

Johnson said Cascade Timberlands was able to salvage about two-thirds of the acreage burned in the Two Bulls Fire, but the fire changed the timing of when to harvest. It will be another 80 years until the trees growing there will be merchantable again.

“It set the clock back quite a ways,” Johnson said.

The situation in Oregon represents larger changes to how the state and federal government are approaching wildfire funding in the wake of record-setting wildfires.

A group of senators largely from the West proposed a bill last month that would change the way Congress funds fire suppression.

Currently, when the fire budget is depleted, the federal government then takes money for fighting fires from areas of the budget that would prevent wildfires by treating forests and reducing fuels. A bill sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, would change that.

“Catastrophic wildfires threaten homes and lives across Oregon and the West year after year,” Wyden said. “The money to fight those fires falls short nearly every time.”

Wyden and Crapo’s bill would allow big wildfires in federal jurisdiction to be funded through a separate disaster account.

In Oregon, lawmakers are offering new ways to look at the damage caused by some large wildfires.

Sen. Doug Whitsett and Rep. Gail Whitsett, a Klamath Falls Republican couple representing rural south and central stretches of Oregon, have a bill that would require the Department of Forestry to file a report on property losses for any fire 1,000 acres and larger.

The hope, they say, is that the reports would put attention on actual losses endured in a blaze.

“I think we have a disconnect with a lot of people in urban areas that have no comprehension of what a wildfire really is,” Doug Whitsett said.

— Reporter: 406-589-4347, tanderson@bendbulletin.com

541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com