The Oregon wildfire season in 2020 destroyed more than 4,000 homes and tore through 1.1 million acres. Nine people died. Most of the devastation occurred over a 72-hour period of a horrific Labor Day weekend. Fires spread rapidly, fueled by wind and dry weather, with many residents fleeing the flames with little advance notice.
This past weekend, Oregon saw similar weather, as winds again ripped through huge parts western Oregon fanning existing flames and sparking new blazes. Oregonians had plenty of reasons to be fearful heading into this past weekend.
“We have dozens of fires still burning on the landscape, tens of thousands of acres have been burned in the state to date,” said Andrew Phelps, director of Oregon’s Department of Emergency Management.
But while fires did grow and hundreds of Oregonians were forced to evacuate, the damage was not as severe as Labor Day 2020.
In comments on Monday during OPB’s Think Out Loud, Phelps gives some credit to changes in Oregon’s wildfire response.
“I know the Department of Forestry in the State Fire Marshal’s office throughout the summer have spoken about the additional resources they have and the capacity they have to respond on this initial attack,” Phelps said.
Phelps believes things could have been different if lawmakers hadn’t passed Senate Bill 762. The new law is providing more than $220 million to help Oregon modernize and improve wildfire preparedness through three key strategies: creating fire-adapted communities, developing safe and effective response from fire personnel, and increasing the resiliency of Oregon’s landscapes. The comprehensive package covers many wildfire prevention tactics, from putting money into firefighting personnel and projects to reduce fuel loads, to requiring electric utilities to file risk reduction plans, and improving how the state alerts Oregonians of approaching fire dangers.
“We all have things that we can do individually and as families and communities to prepare for bad days,” Phelps said. “But it’s a larger system that needs to come into play and leverage the resources that we have.”
In 2020, officials quickly heard from the public that the state’s emergency alert system had failed to notify people on time, or in some cases at all, of evacuation orders.
“We have a much more unified state-wide mass notification system called OrAlert, and this is something really that has garnered the support of just about every county in the state,” Phelps said.
This weekend, multiple utility providers shut off power in areas where winds were strong and conditions were dry. The efforts by Pacific Power and Portland General Electric were intended to prevent more fires from being sparked by downed, active power lines. The “public safety power shutoffs” were outlined in the risk reduction plans required by the new Oregon law.
“It’s been a very collaborative process where they’re talking to emergency managers, they’re talking to forecasters, they are talking to the public utility commission and making sure that folks are on the same page in terms of the timing the risks and the other hazards associated with shutting off power to large swaths of the community. "
As of Sunday, all of the utilities that initiated those voluntary shutoffs reported that power had been restored, according to Phelps.
Phelps acknowledges the impact of these shut-offs and how important planning for them is.
“There are things that we have set up at the state level, relying on federal partners when needed, a host of state agencies and incredible volunteer organizations that provide resources to get into these communities,” he said. Resources for people affected by shutoffs can include cooling centers, food, water, and bags of ice when a multi-day power outage is scheduled.
The Cedar Creek Fire continues to be a main concern for the state, Phelps said. It’s burning near Oakridge causing evacuations in a community that was hit hard by the Holiday Farm Fire in 2020.
Phelps is hoping that the weather that has made fire conditions so dangerous over the last several days will cooperate soon.
“We are heading into that time where we can hope to see some of those fall rains start to impact our state in a positive way,” Phelps said.