Oregon Secretary of State auditors found the Oregon Department of Transportation can learn from its troubled experience overseeing the largest wildfire cleanup job in state history.
Auditors did a limited review of the state’s post-wildfire hazard tree removal operation at ODOT’s request after an outpouring of public concern over the extent of the trees being tagged for removal and cut down.
In an advisory report released Wednesday, seven state auditors reviewed the lessons learned in the extensive cleanup that followed Oregon’s most destructive wildfire season ever.
“Oregon’s 2020 wildfires, and the scale of debris removal executed by the state, were unprecedented,” auditors wrote in their report. “Much of the planning and work was done in a rapid timeframe with staff who had little to no prior experience with disaster debris management. Lessons learned from the experience should be carried forward for future preparedness efforts, which include planning, training, and exercising, to better respond and recover from disasters.”
The report outlines how ODOT responded to the immense task of removing hazardous waste and trees left by the wildfires that burned more than 1.2 million acres and more than 5,000 homes and businesses last year.
The fires left burned and potentially hazardous trees along nearly 120 miles of state highways, and ODOT was in charge of deciding which trees needed to be removed to reduce the risk that they would fall on the road and create a safety hazard.
The state has never attempted such a massive recovery effort, auditors found, and ODOT’s first effort to manage major debris removal operations leaves room for improvement.
Auditors found ODOT needs more staff training in emergency operations so the agency has people who are better able to respond quickly after future wildfires. They found other states have contracts in place for debris removal services before disaster strikes, but Oregon did not. Pre-contracting could speed up future recovery efforts, they found.
The auditors’ report concludes the agency could have managed the cleanup operations better with its organization of staff and contractors, and the state needs to improve its legal process for accessing private properties during a wildfire cleanup.
The advisory report also finds that ODOT could improve internal communication and the quality control process for tree removal. They found there was no reliable or comprehensive documentation ensuring damaged trees marked for removal had a complete review.
“ODOT’s debris removal work is incredibly important not only for making our highways safe but for helping Oregonians recover and rebuild after the devastating 2020 wildfires,” Secretary of State Shemia Fagan said in a statement. “The report shows that in this extremely difficult crisis, ODOT learned and adapted throughout the cleanup. ODOT’s efforts are clearing the way for Oregonians to rebuild their homes, businesses, and communities.”
Earlier this year, arborists and others who worked on the project reported excessive tree-cutting and mismanagement, stoking public concern over the large swaths of logging visible along roadways in wildfire corridors.
Oregon lawmakers held hearings on the reported problems, gathering testimony from workers who said ODOT didn’t have proper criteria for deciding which trees should be removed, that inexperienced workers were irresponsibly marking trees for removal and cutting trees that weren’t actually hazardous without anyone from ODOT supervising.
Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, called on Gov. Kate Brown to stop the project and investigate the allegations. He raised concerns that mismanaging such a large disaster recovery effort could jeopardize the state’s federal funding for the wildfire cleanup work.
But the governor allowed the work to continue, and ODOT Deputy Administrator Mac Lynde told lawmakers his agency was hiring an independent forester to review the operation while the secretary of state audited the project.
In June, the independent forester ODOT hired, arborist Galen Wright, found ODOT was properly identifying hazardous trees for removal.
Wright estimated about 42% of the tree population along the three largest fire corridors had been marked for removal, auditors found, meaning that 58% of the trees were preserved.
But auditors were clear that their “non-audit project” was not actually an audit and was limited in its scope. They gathered information from state employees, contractors and stakeholders involved in hazardous tree removal, including management and staff from ODOT, state and federal agencies, Golden, Oregon tribes, county government workers and concerned Oregonians.
They also conducted site visits to tree-removal sites in June. But their report states they didn’t test the reliability of hazardous tree removal data or assess the adequacy of the criteria used to evaluate whether a tree is hazardous.
Fagan said her office wasn’t looking at how things might work “in a perfect world” but rather what controls ODOT had over the cleanup operations and whether the agency could make those controls work better.
“Something that I learned through this process is that Oregon through ODOT actually has a more conservationist view than [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] does,” Fagan said. “If Oregonians don’t agree with even the current way that ODOT is doing this, that’s something they can take to their legislators. ...The Legislature would have to direct ODOT to change their process.”
Auditors found ODOT and many other entities including the U.S. Forest Service, firefighters, utilities and private landowners all removed trees after the 2020 fires, and there was no documentation of the number or location of trees removed during the early wildfire response.
Fagan noted that the auditors’ report uses illustrations of land areas along highways to show that multiple landowners such as utilities and private industrial timberland owners are also removing burned trees and making it difficult to discern whose tree removal work the public is seeing from the road.
“Oregonians who were going along and thought in general too many trees were being cut might have been noticing the additional private tree removal, which obviously ODOT doesn’t have control over,” Fagan said.
Auditors found ODOT was overseeing 160 contractors and subcontractors in the massive cleanup effort. The agency and its contractors had criteria for evaluating which trees are hazardous and need to be removed, the report states, but that the criteria changed 10 times over the course of the tree removal operations.
A quality control process for having arborists or foresters check tagged trees before they were cut was implemented in March, but the report finds 12,400 trees were cut and removed before this process was in place. Auditors found that more than 80% of the trees removed were subject to the quality control review process.
Audit manager Ian Green said his team had the benefit of hindsight as they were doing their review months after some of the problems with ODOT’s tree-cutting operation were flagged by workers and corrected.
“There certainly were changes that ODOT made to address problems that were raised, and we were looking at the overall governance and controls in place to prevent problems and correct them as they came up,” Green said. “We largely found that ODOT was doing that work well.”
Green said auditors found ODOT could improve documentation of its quality control process, but even that process itself was an improvement over the original system the agency had in place in January where only one arborist would review the decision to cut a hazard tree. Later, the agency added more quality controls with a second arborist validating each decision.
Green said last year’s wildfires burned 100-200 million trees, and ODOT is removing about 140,000 of them.
“Yes, that’s a large number,” he said. “But relative to the number of trees that were damaged, it’s relatively small.”
The report describes an extensive bureaucratic process involving funding from the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency and ODOT overseeing contractors and subcontractors tagging damaged trees deemed hazardous, reviewing tree tagging, monitoring environmental impacts, checking to make sure operations meet FEMA requirements, identifying cultural resources needing protection, cutting trees, hauling cut trees and debris, grinding slash into wood chips and controlling traffic and erosion.
Altogether, the auditors found there was 432 staff performing all of these duties in fire corridors in May. They found only a small fraction of all the trees marked were later de-tagged so they wouldn’t be cut down, and as of August ODOT management was reviewing only seven trees that might have been improperly removed.
“ODOT appeared to take measures to conserve trees,” the report states. “The agency uses a three-year timeframe, instead of FEMA’s five-year period, for evaluating the potential risk of hazardous trees to roads, which reduced the number of trees removed. Additionally, trees on the cusp of being a safety risk were not removed and will be monitored.”
The agency worked with multiple government partners to develop an environmental protection plan for the tree-cutting operation that was also amended over time, the auditors’ report says, but some stakeholders auditors contacted felt the plan still needs additional improvements.
The state left cut trees in highway corridors because they belong to landowners, the report states, though there is a new process that will allow ODOT to sell hazardous trees removed from federal land.
Auditors concluded there is no way ODOT will profit from selling the logs that result from its cleanup operation because the estimated $296 million cost of the removal operation is much higher than the value of the logs.
Private landowners complained to lawmakers that ODOT had removed trees on their properties without permission. But auditors found ODOT is allowed to enter private property to remove a hazard tree if the owner is not readily available, and the agency is only required to provide written notice to the property owner after the fact.
The auditors consulted with ODOT before doing their review and provided the agency with a copy of their report.
Lynde and ODOT Wildfire Cleanup Area Commander Frank Reading responded to the report in a letter dated Oct. 7, saying they appreciate the findings and the auditors’ emphasis on the complexity of the cleanup project.
They noted 90% of home sites have been cleared ahead of schedule and 70% of hazard trees have been cut or removed.
“Communities have started rebuilding and moving forward with next steps in their multi-year recovery process,” they wrote. “When this work began, there was no detailed playbook available for Oregon, but we all came together to efficiently and collaboratively develop a blueprint that can be both carried forward, and revised and improved upon as necessary, for years to come in the event of future disasters.
They recognized the training of staff and contractors and pre-contracting with people who have disaster response expertise are important priorities for future disaster response efforts, and they agreed communication could have been better.
“The unfortunate reality that Oregon may experience another devastating wildfire event in coming years is not taken lightly,” they wrote. “We know that there are always opportunities for improvement, and we will continue to build these lessons learned into all facets of our work for next time.”
While there are no plans for a state-level review of the wildfire recovery effort, the auditors’ report says ODOT intends to hire a consultant to do an after-action review of debris removal operations.
Tree removal cleanup work is estimated to be completed by next summer.