TALKING POINTS: Forestland Classification
State law recognizes the importance of protecting Oregon’s landscape from wildfire. Landowners have a responsibility by law to protect their property from fire, and potential liability in the event a fire spreads to other ownerships. This arrangement protects the individual landowner, his/her neighbors, and the forest resource.
The Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) provides fire protection on forest and grazing lands through a public-private partnership, funded by landowners and the state. Some of the private portion is collected through per-parcel fees. The state provides dollars through its General Fund, in recognition of the broader public role in wildfire protection.
- Some Oregon landowners are finding their land has been classified as forestland, for the purposes of protection from wildfire. Those who don’t cut timber commercially and others who have very little vegetation at all on their land may ask, “Why am I being assessed for wildfire services?” The short answer is: If you reside within a community boundary that is subject to wildfire, your property is part of the wildfire protection system. This is similar in concept to the assessments for structural fire protection that homeowners who reside in a city or rural fire district pay.
- The Oregon Revised Statutes define forestland in ORS 477.001. To paraphrase, the definition includes woodland or grazing land with sufficient vegetation to pose a fire hazard at any time during the year. Again, the focus is on the larger landscape, not individual properties within it.
- Whether or not a parcel is classified as forestland is decided at the county, not state level. Local committees appointed by county commissioners review lands to determine which parcels fit the definition of lands protected by ODF. The committee includes several local appointees, typically owners of forest or grazing land. The State Forester and State Fire Marshal each appoint a member, and one represents the Cooperative Extension Service.
- The assessment rates vary based on fire incidence and suppression costs. For instance, assessments for cool, damp coastal forests are lower than those for drier interior forests with a history of lightning-caused fires. The presence of improvements also influences the rates. Higher fees are charged for parcels with structures, since they increase the complexity and thus the cost of wildland firefighting.
- In making determinations about land classification, the county classification committee conducts field trips, reviews aerial photography and coordinates with local fire chiefs. Upon completion of the process, the committee writes a final order listing the classifications for the county. Once the order is published, a landowner has 30 days in which to appeal it through the jurisdictional circuit court.
- The interval for reviewing forestland classification varies widely from county to county. In some counties there is a standing classification committee; elsewhere, a committee is appointed for periodic classification review.
- Classification changes do not increase ODF’s fire budget. Rather, the classification reviews help ensure that protection costs are fairly distributed. Typically, a review will result in removal of some lands from forest classification and addition of others, in response to land-use changes.
- ODF assessments cover costs of protection from wildland fire. A city or rural fire protection district may levy additional assessments for protection of homes and other structures on forest or grazing land.
- This is not double taxation. Structural and wildland firefighting are distinct pursuits, each with specialized strategies, responsibilities, training and equipment. Fire protection agencies coordinate their tactics whenever homes are threatened by a wildfire. ODF seeks to establish perimeter control to keep the flames away, while agencies with the appropriate responsibilities and resources focus on structural firefighting.