It’s been two years since the deadly Labor Day fires in the Santiam Canyon and Southern Oregon. Fire survivors have struggled in that time to recover and rebuild. They also want answers and accountability: a clear picture of what went wrong and who or what caused the fires. But the official investigations by the U.S. Forest Service, the Oregon Department of Forestry, the Ashland Police Department, and various counties still haven’t been completed. Zach Urness, outdoors editor for the Statesman Journal, tells us about his investigation into why the report has not been completed.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. It’s been two years now since the deadly Labor Day fires in the Santiam Canyon and in Southern Oregon, two years for fire survivors to try to recover and rebuild. They also want answers and accountability – A clear picture of what went wrong, of who or what caused the fires. But the official investigations by the US Forest Service, the Oregon Department of Forestry, the Ashland Police Department and various counties, still have not been completed. Zachary Urness wrote about this delay for The Statesman Journal, and he joins us now, Zach, welcome back.
Zachary Urness: Hey, Dave! Thanks for having me back.
Miller: Thanks for joining us. What exactly do investigators look into when they’re working on one of these post-fire investigations?
Urness: They look at so many different things. One of the things that we know about the Labor Day fires, that’s fairly clear is that the fires were spread rapidly by this historic east wind event. I think it was the highest wind speeds they’ve ever seen for September, these east winds. They’re synonymous with Oregon wildfires growing rapidly and that’s throughout history. So we know the east winds were a huge part of it. The thing that they’re looking at is what ignited those fires. In some cases that’s obvious, there was fires on the landscape like the Beachie Creek fire, the Lionshead Fire. But in other cases the fires sparked, and maybe it was down power lines, maybe it was a person. And so what the investigations do is comb through that in a very scientific way and they produce these final investigation reports that lay out exactly what happened and then if somebody is to blame and in those cases they can bring charges, criminal charges in some cases they might be recouping firefighting costs. So it has to be a very detailed investigation. The who, what, where, when, why… everything laid out scientifically.
Miller: What do we already know? I mean for example what have agencies like the US Forest Service said in the immediate aftermath of the fires? I mean so basically what they say two years ago about what they thought happened.
Urness: I remember the day after the wildfires blew up, when everything was chaos, when everybody was evacuating, the skies were black. I talked to the Forest Service about the Santiam Canyon fires and they definitely said hey it was downed power lines – power lines came down, they ignited these blazes, they got whipped up and that was a big part of what caused the impact in the Santiam Canyon. Now we know, at the same time, that active wildfires that were already happening also blew up. In a lot of cases agencies have kind of hinted at things, they’ve explicitly said things about the cause of them but then more recently they’ve kind of shut that down because they said it’s an ongoing investigation, can’t talk about it. So it’s a weird dynamic where reporters have like reported a lot of the causes, but they will not say officially exactly what happened,
if that makes sense.
Miller: You talked to a number of residents in the Santiam Canyon who said that in talking about those downed power lines, in implicating Pacific Power, US Forest Service officials were just shifting blame away from their own mistakes. What’s this argument?
Urness: It’s really complicated, and for context, what they’re attempting to accomplish in the Santiam Canyon is extremely complicated because you have three fire events at least – you have the active Beachie Creek fire that was in the Opal Creek, you have the Lionshead fire that was around Mount Jefferson. Both of those fires unquestionably blew up in ways that we’ve rarely seen in Oregon. At the same time, there were many reports of downed power lines igniting small spot fires and those are… being the ones that impacted homes. So it’s this mishmash of fire all together. Now, what I’m talking about there was, I’ve written extensively about the volunteer firefighters of Mill City, and they were the only ones that stayed all night all Labor Day night, fighting the fires. In fact, they’re credited with largely preventing the fires from doing a lot more damage to Mill City, and they have maintained since the beginning really, that it was the original Beachie Creek fire that came over the hill that spread embers and that that’s what ignited the spot fires. You have other people who say, ‘Hey, I saw the power lines come down.’ So you have this very complicated situation where you can’t interview the fire and say did you come from the original fire? Did you come from power lines? And so that’s what investigators are piecing together. I talked to professional investigators who said that’s probably as tough as it gets, is when you have multiple fires overlapping and trying to figure out the ignition points of all of them.
Miller: One of the issues that confuses me in terms of the way I think about an investigation that people are going to have faith in, is in this case you have some people, you’re just outlining who, who see mistakes made by the US Forest Service, but it’s the Forest Service itself that is in charge of some of these biggest investigations. Are they essentially, or at least in part investigating their own actions?
Urness: They are, in part. I would stress that in the Santiam Canyon again, just because that’s where I focused a lot of the attention. It is the Oregon Department of Forestry that is investigating what they’ll call ignitions, so ignitions during the Labor Day event, during the big wind events. So that’s the Department of Forestry doing that. It’s the US Forest Service that is investigating the spread of the original fire which originated on federal lands. It’s a tangled web, no doubt, and it would…it certainly led to a certain amount of cynicism, and this feeling that the agencies are screwed up and they’re trying to sweep it under the rug. That’s definitely that sentiment out there. The agency was saying, ‘We’re doing an impartial science based investigation, and it takes a while.’
Miller: So let’s turn to that question about ‘a while,’ because you also note in your new article, that investigations into the deadlier California wildfires such as the Camp and the Dixie fires. Those were completed in about a year. We are now at the two year point for the Oregon Labor Day fires. How have the Oregon Department of Forestry or the US Forest Service explained just the timeline, explained how long this is taking?
Urness: I mean, the forest service hasn’t said much. They just said, ‘It’s an ongoing investigation.’ We were investigating all these causes, it’ll be done when it’s done. The Department of Forestry definitely said we get that it’s been a long time. There was a lot of fires happening. I mean we’re talking about 10 different major wildfires, all kind of happening at once. It’s a lot for an agency. I did compare it to CAL Fire, the California Firefighting Agency. They do typically get these done a little bit quicker. A year, a year and a half is what I was told was average for complex investigations. I would probably say California has more resources, more investigators on staff in the Department of Forestry. So going ‘O’ for 10, not having any investigations to look at at this point, it’s definitely been a source of frustration for a number of people from lawyers to victims to firefighters, just saying, ‘Hey, you know, come on…
Miller: You mentioned lawyers there. What is the connection between the existing civil suits that have been filed on behalf of thousands of people at this point and the investigations that haven’t yet been released?
Urness: For lawyers, if you’re trying to build a case or you’re trying to defend yourself against a case, these final investigation reports are going to be the best piece of evidence that you have. And so, if you’re trying to make a case against Pacific Power, saying they were negligent, they didn’t shut down power, they should have. You kind of need these final investigation reports to back that up to take in front of a jury. On the same token, if you take the CAL Fires, they brought charges against utilities for igniting like the fire that burned down Paradise. They eventually filed criminal charges for voluntary manslaughter in that case. And they say you got to take it in front of a jury, you have to prove a high bar. And so it’s that is the best example of what happened. The most scientific, most rigorous thing is why it’s important to ongoing legal issues.
Miller: So those are legal questions, but there’s also just the issue of some kind of closure. I’m curious what you heard from residents and property owners, fire survivors, especially in Santiam Canyon, which is where you focused, but people have been waiting for this report, these reports just as, as one more way for them to feel like they can move on with their lives?
Urness: The word I heard a lot was ‘accountability.’ You know, we want somebody to explain. A lot of people feel like they know what happened. It’s been two years. A lot of people have kind of made up their minds about the cause, but it’s accountability. It’s saying, ‘Hey, if something went wrong, like we want you to say, ‘Hey, we kind of screwed up, we could do this better,’ ' and especially moving forward. It’s been two years and the thing I kept hearing was, ‘not that much has changed. We need this investigation to say, ‘Here’s what happened, here’s what we can do better so that when this happens the next time we’re much better prepared, we’re better prepared for evacuations. Maybe we’re more aggressive in fighting the original fire.’ All those different things come together, but to move forward, they want progress and they haven’t seen that.
Miller: Zach Urness, thanks.
Urness: Yeah, Thanks. Dave.
Miller: Zachary Urness is the Outdoors Editor for The Statesman Journal and the host of the ‘Explore Oregon’ podcast.
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