The city of Ashland recently hired its first emergency management coordinator. Kelly Burns is a longtime firefighter with the Ashland Fire and Rescue Department. He’ll oversee the creation of a local emergency operations center in partnership with Southern Oregon University and the Ashland School District. With wildfire season on the horizon, he joins us to talk about his vision for the role and how he hopes to prepare the city for future crises.
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. The city of Ashland recently hired its first emergency management coordinator. The position may be new to Ashland but the person who is chosen for it is not. Kelly Burns is a longtime firefighter with the Ashland Fire and Rescue Department. Now, he’ll oversee the creation of a local emergency operations center in partnership with Southern Oregon University and the Ashland School District. He joins us to talk about wildfires and other emergencies. Kelly Burns, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Kelly Burns: David, thanks for welcoming me to Think Out Loud. I’m excited to chat with you.
Miller: Likewise. What was your path to becoming a firefighter?
Burns: Well, my father encouraged me to get the fire job as a stepping stone to something bigger and better. I had good test scores and thought I would be a doctor or a lawyer. And my father, who was also a former Ashland firefighter, finished his degree at Southern Oregon State College (now Southern Oregon University), working for the fire department, as he became a geologist and went on from there. But he encouraged me to work in the trade of firefighting and then move on to bigger and better things. That was supposed to be temporary for me, but that was 1990, and I just finished my career in fire, after 32 years, as of February 1st, when I started as the emergency management coordinator for Ashland.
Miller: Why, why did you stay in something that you had planned to be temporary?
Burns: I think when you’re starting out and you’re trying to figure out, “well, what do you want to do with your life?” Everybody seems to ask you that. I was pretty sure I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer and that firefighting would be temporary. But I gotta tell you, after working for a month for local Ashland fire departments and running on the calls we got to go to, and getting into the schools like we did for teaching and things… I really enjoyed it. It doesn’t make a lot of money, but every day was something different and challenging and you’re directly impacting people, and in such a positive way. And so I stuck with it. There’s really no end to the amount of challenges and problems you can solve on the fire and rescue side of things.
Miller: Let’s zoom forward to this new job. What went through your mind when you first heard about this new emergency management coordinator position that the city was going to start?
Burns: There aren’t very many firefighters that successfully reach a 30 year career without injury or damage or some level of like… that they’re missing out on things. I’ve seen plenty of people leave this career cynical and thinking that their retirement’s busted, and I swore I just didn’t ever want to do that. And starting 2012, fires started getting bigger. And the challenges that we faced started getting bigger, [the] call volumes were going up. And while we are firefighters, we are more emergency medical technicians and paramedics. So we do lots more medicals.
In 2020 we had the Alameda Fire down here in Southern Oregon. There were plenty of other fires going on in the state at the same time, on September 8th. And we were so overmatched, immediately overmatched, from the beginning of that event. At the time I was the battalion chief for our “C” Shift, with a good crew that I had trained and we did our best to meet that fire head on, to try to protect people and property. And of course, our efforts were never going to be enough that day, because we didn’t have the capacity for it.
I had been thinking, “Well, I would love to be able to put some of my influence and skill and experience towards getting my community, which I love, better prepared for the big events.” Which they will inevitably come again. Because there aren’t enough of us, firefighters, police, public works responders, to respond to everyone’s needs.
Miller: I want to stick with the Alameda Fire for a second since you brought it up and then we can come back to this job. Because it seems like such an important piece of this, and a terrible but real example of what you’ve had to deal with and what we people all over the West will have to deal with again at some point, maybe soon. How close did the fire come to being much worse in the Rogue Valley?
Burns: I don’t know that it could have been much worse. The results of the Alameda Fire, and maybe I’m taking this from different data that I’ve read, is that it is Oregon’s most destructive fire as far as people and property. 2,500 structures lost. Two towns, Talent and Phoenix, close to Ashland, lost so much. What caused this fire - which was human caused, but they haven’t been able to pin it exactly on what exactly started it - it was driven by the winds that day, by drought and heat conditions. We get an east wind here, which is a bit like the Santa Ana winds in California. Every time that wind pushes hard from the east, everybody’s hackles get up a little bit because those are the days that the fire becomes very dangerous. So towards the end of the fire… “Why did the fire end?” maybe, is the good question, and that’s because the wind finally stopped on day two, right around 6:00 pm. And once the wind stopped, it stopped pushing the fire towards Medford, which, had the wind continued, there was a good chance it would have taken much of Medford as well.
Miller: How humbling is that, I mean, what you’re saying is what made the biggest difference was just Mother Nature…
Burns: Finally stopping.
Miller: …as opposed to the work and bravery of humans?
Burns: It is incredibly humbling, and the experience that we had during the Alameda event, which just isn’t mine alone, there are plenty of responders and even citizens stepped in, too, is that everything we tried to do, it didn’t do very much. Now, I’m somebody with 30 plus years in fire and EMS, and so I’ve got plenty of memories that haunt me a bit. But, in my last 10 years, I was trying to collect those memories that are like, “Well, that turned out well… and that was actually a save… and that was a good thing.” And so I have a small set of memories from the Alameda event, which really was such a beating on everybody here in the valley, including myself.
But there were places where, right at the beginning, we saved three separate structures in this little neighborhood in Ashland, called the Quiet Village Neighborhood. And there’s probably, I don’t have exact numbers, so I’m paraphrasing. There’s probably about 100 structures in this neighborhood, Quiet Village. I was fairly convinced that we were going to lose that neighborhood because this wall of flame was coming right for it, driven by the winds, and I have a small firefighting force that there’s not enough of us to stop a monster like that. But we still put ourselves in its way. And 24 hours later, I’m in the command post. We’re still fighting this thing. It’s taking the city of Phoenix, and a captain who no longer works with the actual fire department, comes into the command post. They’re getting fuel, they’re getting ready to go back out for another beating, and he gives me this big hug.
And you know, firefighters, we’re not all like huggers and things like that. But he’s hugging me and I’m like, “Oh, what are you doing?” And he’s like, “We did it, we saved it.” I won’t say the guy’s name, but I’m like, “We didn’t save anything, we’re losing Phoenix now, as well as Talent.” He’s like, “No, the Quiet Village Neighborhood is still standing.” And I was stunned, because I was fairly certain that we had lost it. So, I take some of those memories, there were some incredible rescues done in a couple of mobile home parks that were burning to the ground. The residents, some of them being limited mobility, were driven into the bottom of this area, where the fire was going to overtake them. And between cops and firefighters that just happened to be there at the right moment, and they got them out. And there were probably 20 or 30 saves of people, that under other circumstances at the wrong moment, the fire was going to take all of them.
So I do hold a few memories back of like, well, “We lost all of this, but we did have some success in some places.” I hope that answers the question.
Miller: It does. What are some concrete lessons that you’ve taken from that terrible fire, and that you aim to apply to your work in emergency management coordination going forward?
Burns: A few good lessons were… nobody’s on an island, even in Oregon. We all need each other to get through this era of climate change, and mega-fires and wind-driven fires, because our very way of life, this Northwest area that I’ve grown up in and love, is threatened constantly. So part of me being the emergency management coordinator and part of what plays into maybe my strengths, is that I’m a trainer. So one of my top two goals is to get my citizenry and my local Rogue Valley community more in line with preparing to evacuate, to have an emergency kit ready to go.
There are lots of resources out there. Sometimes that can feel overwhelming. But I do point to sites like ready.gov, which describes what people can do - have a backpack with certain supplies in it. It’s very easy to follow. It’s in multiple languages, so [it’s] very accessible. Our local Ashland Chamber of Commerce has links to many of these sites too, and they have somebody that just helped design much of their webpage to make it accessible for business and citizens in school.
Training and preparation, that’s big for me. I just want to engage the community that I know and love really well. So then, in order to support our responders that are going out there and facing these big fires and these big events (which don’t just have to be fires, they could be flood, earthquake, there could be a hostile event, riots, things like that), then we’re creating in our community an emergency operation center (EOC). And we’re doing something somewhat unique. We’re partnering with Southern Oregon University (SOU) and the Ashland School District, again, because we all recognize that not one of us has enough people to create an emergency operations center and staff it with trained people.
An EOC is a bit like a NASA launch room. The astronauts who are always the coolest, they’re out there flying the rocket, or the rescuers, they’re also the coolest, they’re out there like trying to defend life and property. But the EOC then does all that support work, not just not just for them to get them more resources but to also to help with people who are unhoused then and do some recovery efforts in that place. And so that supports the bigger operations which eventually will come. So, SOU, Ashland School District and the city of Ashland are forming an intergovernmental agreement to make an EOC in the southern half of Jackson County. That’s been a big deal.
Miller: What do you think it would be like for you to step in to manage these partnerships if you didn’t have, what I imagine to be, longstanding, personal relationships with a lot of people in the region? You’ve been there for more than three decades?
Burns: Yeah. Well, you and I have just met, and Oregon Public Broadcasting, “hi” to everybody out there. My father taught me early on to learn how to play well with everyone, and that “play” is just another term for “work” or “train.” As I approach these things, I’m aware that in a major fire like this, nobody gets to be an island, so we all have to work together. My lean is always to be like, “Hey, we’re in this together. There’s some commonality here, how can we solve this problem?”
There were so many group efforts after the Alameda Fire, even locally, here, with business owners and people that started businesses like the Rogue Food Unites, started by some of our locals who started delivering meals to people who were suddenly unhoused or couldn’t afford meals and stuff. And some of that requires coordination and communication between government, between business, between citizens, and I help bridge that. Not only because I have some personal relationships with a lot of people in the Valley, but also because I just try to speak with a common language that we can all trust that we’re all trying to do the best we can for each other.
Miller: I also want to remind folks, we actually talked to the folks behind Rogue Foods Unites back in November, if folks want to listen to that conversation. That’s a Jackson County nonprofit.
Will you have any role in emergency communications? As we’ve seen, over and over again, including in the Alameda Fire, it can also be really challenging.
Burns: Yeah. So during the Alameda fire, as it progressed, the challenge became, for us - and many municipalities have the same thing, that don’t have emergency managers or emergency management coordinators like me - is that everyone’s in the fight. So nobody’s there to like type out a mass notification to people to say, “Hey, you’re in harm’s way, evacuate to these areas.” Because in our area, especially Ashland, everyone was out there fighting the fire and [dealing with] the immediate life threats, like trying to rescue people.
The county had some delay with their messaging but even our local Wildfire Chief Chris Chambers was able to push out a message [using] Nixle. And those emergency messages are the role of an emergency manager, a coordinator, that’s what I’m on board with and stuff too. And it was one of the things that I reflected on, especially in the Alameda event. There was no time for our people to go back to a computer and send something out. Because the need, the life threat, was too great where we were at every moment. Hopefully my energy and push and passion around this subject will be that when we need those messages, I can do that for us no matter what the event is again. It doesn’t have to be another Alameda Event. It could be a flood, it could be a riot, it could be a hostile event or something.
Miller: Speaking of that, I’m glad you’ve noted that we’re not just talking about fires. What do you think is an emergency that collectively we are not actually paying enough attention to as a possibility?
Burns: Oh, man. Just checking anybody’s news site. Everything’s a little scary and I think it’s easy to become overwhelmed.
Miller: So it’s almost like the opposite. You’re saying, we’re so inundated with talk of disasters that you’re worried that we’re becoming overwhelmed by it, or complacent?
Burns: Not necessarily complacent, but I would just say again, it’s “overwhelmed.” Like, for me as a responder, I’ve got plenty of experience in handling really hard, scary things and I think everybody’s not built that way or programmed that way. But you still have to allow that you’re gonna be able to reach some people but not all people. And I just remember a quote, I can’t remember who it was attributed to, but it’s like “It’s human nature to avoid being consumed by hypotheticals.” Hypotheticals being like, “what would be scary or disastrous until they’re staring us straight in the face.” And that’s been something in wildland firefighting, at some point . . . like the climate has changed, the West Coast has changed, it is on fire every year now. So I don’t need people to become so numb to the drumbeat of like, “Hey, things might catch on fire.”
But what I do need them to be able to do, especially for our responders, especially for themselves, is even though they’re scared, to prepare and to get ready and to practice what you will do in the event like that. If you get a message from me that says, “Hey, Ashland Evacuation Areas One, Two and Three, we need you to go, now,” and to have some of that muscle memory developed ahead of time. If you practice that ahead of time, it always works. We do it in the fire service all the time. We fall back on our training when things start to get scary. And so if the average person, someone else who does another important job doing something completely different, you can actually push through fear and do something to help yourself, help your neighbor, and that’s one of those things too.
What events do we need to really be prepared for? Climate change is driving fire, flood, and severe weather changes. There’s a lot of humans now too, and there’s some of us that mess things up. So those are challenges to deal with as well.
I would just say, well, whatever world you live in, whatever town you live in, whether you’re in a house or in a vehicle, get used to practicing a way to make yourself safe and then do it once or twice. And that way when the big event comes, which is likely to be a fire on the West Coast, then you have a plan of action as to how to proceed with things. And maybe I’d throw one more thing in there, too. An old handlebar mustached firefighter, years ago, challenged me: “every place I went into, I needed to define a second way out.” That was like beat into me as a firefighter to always be thinking like, “Ok, if I would normally go out of a place this way, what happens if that way is blocked?” So as I encourage people to practice fire drills in their home, practice evacuation routes, I would always think of this handlebar mustached firefighter and I would encourage them to try a second way, to see if there’s another way. And if there’s not, then how are you going to plan for that, and solve that puzzle?
Miller: Kelly Burns. Thanks very much for joining us.
Burns: Thank you, David. This was great. It’s a real pleasure talking with you.
Miller: Likewise. It’s Kelly Burns, the new emergency management coordinator for the city of Ashland.
Contact “Think Out Loud®”
If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to email@example.com, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.