Think Out Loud

3 years later, Labor Day fire investigations haven’t been released

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Oct. 6, 2023 4 p.m. Updated: Oct. 7, 2023 6:42 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, Oct. 6

Wildfire smoke chokes Molalla, Ore., in this file photo from Sept. 9, 2020. It's been three years since the 2020 Labor Day fires and only one of the nine major fires have an official answer.

Wildfire smoke chokes Molalla, Ore., in this file photo from Sept. 9, 2020. It's been three years since the 2020 Labor Day fires and only one of the nine major fires have an official answer.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB


It’s been three years since the Labor Day fires burned more than 4,000 homes and about a million acres of land across Oregon. Since then, fire investigators have only publicly released the cause of one of the nine major fires. Zach Urness is the outdoor editor for the Statesman Journal and the host of the “Explore Oregon” podcast. He joins us to share why we still don’t have official answers and what this means for survivors of the catastrophic event.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. It’s now been more than three years since nine major wildfires flared up in Western Oregon around Labor Day of 2020. That was more than three years ago, but to date the cause of only one of those fires has been released publicly. According to Zach Urness in the Statesman Journal, the other eight are either still under investigation or incomplete or have not been made. Zach Urness joins now to talk about all of this. Welcome back to the show.

Zach Urness: Hey, Dave. Good to talk to you, again.

Miller: It’s good to have you on. Can you remind us, first, just the scale of these fires up and down the western half of Oregon.

Urness: Oh, man. Yeah, if you’re new to Oregon and you weren’t here for Labor Day 2020, it really felt like the apocalypse while it was happening. There were just major east wind events picked up a bunch of fires and just spread them in a way that has never happened. Historically, it burned over a million acres. Around 4,000 homes were destroyed. It really was a calamity on the scale that again Oregon really hasn’t seen in the past .

Miller: You noted in your reporting that of the nine major fires, we only have the report for the Archie Creek fire that was in the North Umpqua Canyon in Southwestern Oregon. What did that report find?

Urness: Yeah, that’s the only official report we’ve seen and basically what it said was that power lines operated by Pacific Power were the probable cause of two of the fires that merged into the Archie Creek Fire. The report came from a joint investigation by the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, but I should add that Pacific Powers’ fault when it comes to Archie Creek is still the subject of an ongoing lawsuit. So there could be more to the story here, but that’s what we have for now.

Miller: What about the other investigations? What are the different categories of the public not having a pdf in front of them right now?

Urness: So there’s the cause and origin investigation, the act of determining how a fire started and spread. In Oregon, the Oregon Department of Forestry and Forest Service both do that work first. Then they look into the process of was some person or some company responsible for the fire so they can maybe charge them with a crime, they might seek to recover money from the cost of fighting the fire. So that’s sort of the process that they’re doing. Why Oregonians don’t have that in front of them is it’s just taking a long time. Again, these were historically large, complicated fires. There was a lot going on and they just haven’t finished the work to the point that they will release it publicly.

Miller: Although one of the things you note is that some of these have actually gone along and there is a report that in some ways, seems at a final place. But even in those cases, they have not yet been released to the public. Why not? After reports are done, why can’t we see it?

Urness: Yeah. So I mean that again, there’s three steps to this process. So there’s that first part, the cause and origin investigation and you’re right in a few cases, the South Open Chain Fire, there’s part of the Echo Mountain Complex. That has been completed. The problem is they go through a few other additional steps before they will release it publicly. That is certifying the cost of the fire and then going [through] that investigation or litigation process where they’re trying to get money from an entity to pay for the firefighting cost. And that can be complicated, that can require litigation. And so I think that is definitely part of what’s holding up the release of some of these reports.

Miller: Now as you note, and it seems like a very fair point, the scale and complexity of all these fires happening at the same time was unprecedented in Oregon history and it has led to very complicated simultaneous investigations. So that’s an important caveat. Nevertheless, you also note that in California, the investigations for two gigantic fires, the Camp Fire and the Dixie Fire, each of those were released after about a year. What’s different in California?


Urness: There’s two primary things that are different in California. The first is just the resources that California has. So the agency Cal Fire is very well funded into the high billions for their budgets and they have around 120 fire investigators, dedicated fire investigators. Oregon, by contrast, the Oregon Department of Forestry has about 25 dedicated fire investigators and a budget around 500 million. So they just have less resources to put into something like that. But there’s also a difference in the policy and the way that they go about it. So you asked about why the reports that had been completed in Oregon hadn’t been released. In California by law, they would have been. Once they finish these investigations, they are almost always made public right away, either through records requests or to fire victims who need them. And in Oregon, that’s not the case. They have those extra two steps where they have to do that additional stuff before they’ll release anything. Until that point they keep everything basically walled off.

Miller: You heard that in the absence of an official report, especially the piece of the report about the cause of the fires, that conspiracy theories can fester. Is that happening in Oregon?

Urness: I think that’s the way people feel about how the fires were ignited and spread originally and can kind of harden. And so if you believe people were setting fires up and down the Cascades, you know that that opinion tends to harden. I still hear stuff like that all the time. There are other various conspiracies and stuff that I won’t necessarily mention all of them. But I hear a lot of that and the absence of having the state come in and say so we looked at this scientifically, here’s what happens. This is our report. Not everybody’s going to end up trusting those, but at least having that report can definitely give people peace of mind, they know what happened and they can kind of complete that cycle. I just think psychologically and the investigator with Cal Fire that I talked to definitely talked about that. He said they tried to get the reports out as quickly as possible in part to kind of squash those conspiracy theories and stuff like that because without it again, things can just harden.

Miller: Right. It also makes me wonder if the official explanation for the cause of fire comes out, say, three or four or five years after the fire and after the misinformation has been in a sense, allowed to go unchecked for that long. I wonder what difference the official report can make at that point.

Urness: I think it still will help and it can help with a variety of different things, not the least of the ongoing lawsuits that are taking place now without these. But yes, you’re correct. If people have decided that these fires were caused by X, there is a pretty good chance they’re not going to change their mind now.

Miller: Well, you talked about lawsuits. A lot of our listeners may remember that survivors of one of the fires recently won a class action lawsuit against Pacificorps, or I think it was maybe more than one fire linked together for that suit. So, is a suit like that then at this point, completely separate from these official investigations?

Urness: That’s a complicated question and I would say yes. I mean, they went through this very rigorous, I think it was a six-week class action trial that looked at four of the Labor Day fires and some of which hadn’t had final investigations released. At this point, that process is continuing independent of these fire investigations. Now, if the fire investigations come out, it could have some impact on the trial, but I’ve been told it probably won’t. So I’m really not sure what will happen. It can have an impact on some of the lawsuits that are ongoing. Maybe somebody who didn’t like the result can sue for a new trial, but it creates kind of an awkward situation.

Miller: What about survivors? What has this meant for them? What have you heard?

Urness: The one thing that I’ve heard time and time again is accountability. This happened and people not only wanted to know what happened but they wanted somebody to stand up and take responsibility. That’s part of what this fire investigative process should bring. It’s the state saying here’s what happens, now we can learn from it. And without that, I’ve been told by survivors a lot, if we don’t know what happened, how can we learn from it and plan for the future? So it’s that combination of them wanting someone to take accountability and wanting to be prepared for the future by understanding what happened in the past.

Miller: What about insurance? Is there a connection between these official reports and having a claim processed and getting money?

Urness: Yeah, that’s again another complicated question because I was told by Cal Fire and by others that it does help to have a fire investigation report to bring to your insurance company to be made whole. I wouldn’t say that I’ve heard that happening in Oregon, though. I haven’t heard people say my insurance company won’t pay me the money because we don’t have this. So I haven’t heard that happen. I know it’s part of the process, but that’s not something that has come up.

Miller: In terms of criminal investigations, it’s not at all uncommon for there never to be an answer and we never have cold cases that go on for decades. Is it possible that that’ll be the case for some of these fires as well? That even if and when a report is released, there won’t be a definitive answer about what happened?

Urness: Yeah, I think that that is certainly possible. In fact, that’s happened in the past. I’ve been reporting on wildfires in Oregon since 2015. So I’ve done this process a lot and I remember the Terwilliger Fire of 2018 at Terwilliger Hot Springs. They looked, they investigated, it was human caused. They knew that and they investigated for two and a half years, followed a whole bunch of leads and ultimately couldn’t find the responsible party of who said it and so that could certainly happen in one of these cases.

Miller: Zach, thanks very much.

Urness: Hey, thanks, Dave.

Miller: Zach Urness is the outdoor editor for the Statesman Journal and the host of the “Explore Oregon” podcast.

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