Oregon cancels its long-held policy with Lloyd’s of London

The Oregon Department of Forestry has cancelled an insurance policy that has over the years reduced the cost of fighting wildfires; it had acquired sky-high deductibles over the last few years.

ODF said it will not renew its policy with Lloyd’s of London, a UK-based insurance market, in the 2023-2024 policy year. Longer, more complex, and costlier fire seasons over the last decade have led to higher premiums and deductibles, which in turn made the policy less attractive to Oregon officials. The policy was first acquired in 1973, according to KEZI-TV, to reduce the impacts of wildland fire suppression costs for Oregonians.

The decision was made after an April 3 meeting of the Emergency Fire Cost Committee (EFCC), which oversees the Oregon Forest Land Protection Fund (FLPF). After an extensive review, the EFCC recommended to the State Forester Cal Mukumoto that he cancel the insurance policy, and he decided not to renew it, explaining that the funds that would have paid for the policy can be better used directly paying for wildfire suppression efforts.

According to the EFCC, the 2023-2024 insurance policy would have had a deductible of over $78.5 million – 57 percent higher than in the 2021-2022 policy. Oregon’s historic fire season costs did not meet that threshold, so the policy was very unlikely to actually trigger this year and provide any financial benefit to the state. The 2023-2024 premium was quoted at $4.1 million for $25 million in coverage.

$11 million contest for innovation in fighting fire

Best-selling author and futurist Peter Diamandis became frustrated in recent years with the “craziness” of constant wildfire alerts he’d received. But unlike most people, Diamandis has a Rolodex full of wealthy benefactors and politicians, along with experience with a solution he had used before: Create a contest.

On April 21 his group XPRIZE launched its latest contest: finding new ideas to detect and suppress wildfires.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) said the prize threshold includes detecting and suppressing a high-risk wildfire in 10 minutes or less, and pinpointing from space all fire ignitions across multiple states or countries — in 60 seconds. These are the challenges for innovators in XPRIZE Wildfire, a four-year, $11 million competition to develop and demonstrate fully autonomous capabilities to find and fight wildfires.

XPRIZE Wildfire

The United Nations, the White House, and Congress recently have prioritized destructive wildfires as a major economic, environmental, and safety threat. Patti Poppe, CEO of PG&E, said they are co-sponsoring the project. “Today’s launch of XPRIZE Wildfire is a call-to-action to entrepreneurs, roboticists, artificial-intelligence experts, scientists, and innovators from across the globe to revolutionize wildfire detection and suppression,” she said.

XPRIZE Wildfire encourages teams from around the world to innovate across firefighting technologies in two different tracks designed to transform how fires are detected and suppressed.

    • In the Autonomous Wildfire Response track, teams will need to monitor at least 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles), and autonomously suppress a wildfire within 10 minutes of detection.
    • In the Space-Based Wildfire Detection & Intelligence track, teams will have one minute to accurately detect all fires across a landscape larger than entire states or countries, and 10 minutes to precisely characterize and report data (with the fewest false positives) to two ground stations.

The day before something is a breakthrough, it's a crazy idea.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Palmer Luckey, a 30-year-old founder of Oculus, a virtual reality company that sold for $2 billion, announced that he was forming the first team to compete for the prize. He said he cares more about solving the problem than winning the money, but he believes the cash will motivate other contestants to form teams and compete.

“I sold my last company for billions of dollars so I can do whatever I want,” he said. “We started working on wildfire tech because I think it’s very, very important. The money in this prize to me is honestly immaterial.” Luckey said at the contest launch that he thinks software, not hardware, will make the difference in detecting and containing fires.

The four-year contest is not winner-take-all. Teams will compete for top prizes of as much as $3.5 million and a bonus $1 million prize to develop technology that can detect fires both from the ground and from space, and fight them using drones or other autonomous vehicles. They’ll compete, for example, to see which technology can accurately detect fires across a land mass the size of a state or country in one minute or suppress fires using an autonomous vehicle within 10 minutes.

Andrea Santy, who is running the competition for XPrize, also said the prize money may not be the most important driver. Teams will benefit from multiple rounds of live testing and validation that would be hard to organize independently. The group is spending an additional $11 million beyond the prize money to run the contest, she said; some of that money will fund a documentary about the competition.

XPRIZE Wildfire is offered in partnership with Co-Sponsors PG&E and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Presenting Sponsor Minderoo Foundation, Bonus Prize Sponsor Lockheed Martin, Supporting Sponsor Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, and Benefactors Nichola Eliovits and Michael Antonov. Sixteen teams are already registered. For more information, to get involved, or to register a team to compete, visit the xprize.org/wildfire website.

Volunteer firefighter in Pennsylvania charged with 60 felonies after lighting two dozen fires

YET ANOTHER TOILET PAPER ARSONIST:  An 18-year-old volunteer firefighter allegedly started 21 wildfires over the last couple months; ABC-27 News reported that Adam Ewing, of Three Springs, was arrested by the Bureau of Forestry for setting wildland fires in February and March.

On Saturday, Feb. 11, a series of wildfires started in southern Huntingdon County. Just before 2:30 p.m., crews were called out to a fire near Captain Jack’s Road. This fire burned about a half acre in dead leaves and brush before firefighters could control the flames. About 20 minutes later, crews were dispatched to another fire along Old Tannery Road in the Saltillo Borough. Another third of an acre was burned before firefighters were able to control it, according to a criminal affidavit.

On Feb. 14, investigators from the Bureau of Forestry visited the locations of the two fires to determine a cause. They concluded the fires had been maliciously lit with the intention to burn or spread.

another toilet paper arsonist
Adam Ewing, of Three Springs, was arrested by the Bureau of Forestry for setting 21 fires in Huntingdon County in February and March. Huntingdon County Prison photo

WTAJ-TV News reported that just before 2:30 p.m., crews were called out to a fire near Captain Jack’s Road; it burned .51 acres of dead leaves and brush before firefighters were able to extinguish the flames.

Investigators then learned that Ewing was the one who had called in the fire along Captain Jack’s Road. Later on Feb. 14, multiple fire crews were called out after two wildfires were reported near Hamman Road and Sugar Grove Road in Cromwell Township. Investigators from the Bureau of Forestry responded to the fires and were able to confirm again that these fires had been intentionally lit, according to the criminal complaint. The Three Springs Volunteer Fire Company’s Chief Chris Grace told the forestry investigators that Ewing — a volunteer firefighter — was the first to arrive at the fire station for the call. On Feb. 23 and 24, another 10 fires were reported — and also called arson by state Forestry. Police noted in the filed charges that at three of the fires, they found pieces of toilet paper with a rose pattern. Investigators went to Ewing’s home, where they confirmed that the toilet paper at the burn sites matched the rose pattern toilet paper at Ewing’s home. Ewing has yet to post his $500,000 bail. He’s facing 63 felony charges

Western Oregon non-profit awarded more than $9 million wildfire risk prevention grant

A Douglas County non-profit will receive $9 million in prevention grant funding, the second highest award in the state of Oregon. The U.S. Forest Service awarded $9,151,505 through its Community Wildfire Defense Grant program (CWDG) to the Douglas Electric Cooperative, according to a KEZI News report. The non-profit electric utility serves 11,000 meters in a 2,500-square-mile territory that includes Douglas, Coos, and Lane counties in western Oregon.

In Grant County, the town of John Day received two grants, including the state’s largest award of $9,907,344 earmarked for Grant County’s evacuation corridor and fuels management, Forest Service officials said. (This is the same Grant County that arrested a burn boss on a USFS prescribed fire last fall.) The Blue Mountain Eagle reported that Prairie Wood Products also was awarded a $1 million grant as part of an effort to strengthen the wood products economy and promote sustainable forest management. Through the Wood Products Infrastructure Assistance grant program, the Forest Service is providing funding to wood processing facilities to improve, establish, retrofit, or expand facilities that purchase and process byproducts from ecosystem restoration projects on federal or tribal lands.

The Forest Service’s CWDG program invests a total of $23.5 million to assist communities, and often partners with The Nature Conservancy. “In 60 years of working with wildland fire, The Nature Conservancy has learned that successful wildfire adaptation efforts are inevitably grounded in communities,” said Marek Smith, director of TNC’s North America Fire program. “The Community Wildfire Defense Grant program provides an important opportunity to deliver needed resources to communities that are doing the challenging work of living sustainably with wildfire.”

The 2021 Bootleg Fire on the Chiloquin Ranger District of the Fremont-Winema National Forest. South Central Oregon Fire Management Partnership photo
The 2021 Bootleg Fire on the Chiloquin Ranger District of the Fremont-Winema National Forest. South Central Oregon Fire Management Partnership photo

Some of the 100 funded projects — including the Chiloquin Wildfire Risk Reduction and Education project in Oregon — are led by TNC or its partners.

“We’re grateful for support of TNC-involved projects, and we’re deeply grateful to see a broad slate of funded projects that are diverse in terms of scope, communities represented, and geography,” said Smith. “A better future with wildland fire requires that outmoded ideas and approaches are transformed by the vision and experience of diverse communities.”

Forest Service officials said the CWDG program funding is made possible through the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, part of which prioritized low-income communities at risk of a wildfire hazard. An additional round of funding will be announced later this year.

4000-acre fire in New Jersey forces evacuations

A fast-moving wildfire in southern New Jersey grew to nearly 4,000 acres in under 24 hours as record springtime heat has set in across the Northeast. CNN reported that the Jimmy’s Waterhole Fire had already burned more than half the average acres burned in New Jersey in an entire year, according to statistics from the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. The fire was 50 percent contained at 3,859 acres by Wednesday morning.

It was reported at just 500 acres at 10 p.m. Tuesday, according to the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.

WPVI-TV News reported Wednesday morning that the fire was at 50 percent containment, and by  Wednesday afternoon it was estimated at 60 percent.

About 170 structures in the Manchester Township area were evacuated Tuesday night, but all residents have since been allowed to return home, Manchester Police Chief Robert Dolan said during a news conference Wednesday.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection photo
New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection photo

New Jersey has been dealing with a series of recent fires exacerbated by dry and windy conditions. The Washington Post reported a mandatory evacuation  in Manchester, where residents were relocated to the Manchester Township High School, with support from the American Red Cross, Manchester Township EMS, Manchester Police Department, and Ocean County Sheriff’s Office.



University of Oregon launches new smoke research center

The University of Oregon in Eugene is launching a new research program to study effects of wildfire smoke and examine options for reducing risks. UO research professor Cass Moseley told KGW News that the center’s launch is due in part to efforts by Oregon’s U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, who secured $800,000 in funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Research will focus in part on new ways to protect homes from smoke infiltration, along with more efficient communication with communities in emergencies and developing community action plans tailored to different regions in the Northwest.

The new Wildfire Smoke Research and Practice Center builds on research already completed through the Ecosystem Workforce Program (EWP), a joint venture between the UO and Oregon State University. KLCC reported that the EWP’s senior policy advisor Cass Moseley will head up the new center; she said recent incidents in the Pacific Northwest, particularly the 2020 Labor Day fires, highlighted the need for new smoke research. Much of Oregon, particularly the southern Willamette Valley, was choked with wildfire smoke for weeks during the 2020 fire season.

Those fires and the severe levels of smoke really emphasized the need for new research, according to Moseley. “And we saw this fall in Oakridge, several weeks of highly dense smoke as the fire there settled into that valley and really stayed; that community spent a lot of time and energy responding to that smoke event.”

Cedar Creek Fire, October 2022
Cedar Creek Fire Incident Command Post in Oakridge, Oct. 15, 2022 — Inciweb photo

The center’s launch was announced by Merkley and Wyden, who secured the funding to help communities prepare for wildfire smoke. One area of interest is the toxins released when manmade structures burn, as these risks became obvious during western Oregon fires in wildland/urban interface areas over the last few years. Most smoke research has focused on burning timber and wooden structures, and part of the new planned research will study effects of smoke from burning plastics, glass, fuels, and other synthetic materials. Moseley said the center has three co-investigators and a principal investigator leading the group, along with research assistants and graduate and undergraduate student assistants.