A year after the devastating wildfires of 2020, cleanup efforts continue along Oregon's roadways.
As we approach the end of another fire season, I find myself reflecting on stories of hope and resilience following the devastating 2020 Labor Day wildfires.
The wildfire experiences of so many last year were filled with loss and grief. But, take a closer look, and we find courage in the recovery work performed by crews, strength in the families that lost homes and loved ones, and patience in how all Oregonians did their part to fire-proof their communities and prevented wildfires before they started.
Consider the magnitude of the job last year: nine major wildfires, more than a million acres burned, removing debris and ash from over 3,000 fire-damaged lots, and assessing and removing more than 100,000 hazard trees. Lives were lost, thousands fled, and many lost their homes and livelihoods.
Today, more than a year later, we still feel the pain. While we have reopened 140 miles of highway, one road, OR 224 above Estacada in the Portland area, remains closed through the end of this year due to falling rocks, trees, and other debris — just one example of the fires' lasting economic hit. Around the state, we're looking at another six to twelve months to complete the cleanup, knowing that recovery and rebuilding will take much longer.
The lessons are equally hard and traumatic. I will never forget how behind each of these numbers are people who have suffered. Take the story of Tony and Judy Baalmann.
Every week, the Baalmans would sit on a hill in Talent, sip coffee and look down as crews cleaned debris from where their home and community once stood. They lost almost everything in the Almeda Drive Fire, and the pandemic, medical procedures and other obstacles compounded a terrible situation. But while they were uncertain about what this year would hold, they remained resilient as they looked ahead one day at a time.
While sitting on that hill, watching as ODOT crews cleared the way for their next home, they were able to embrace some semblance of hope seeing the progress made week by week.
To begin this recovery and rebuilding effort, Gov. Kate Brown and the Wildfire Economic Recovery Council created the Debris Management Task Force, a three-agency group headed by ODOT for its contract management expertise, to tackle this task. Work started immediately with a leadership team and more than 1,200 crew members assembled within weeks. Then came the removal of hazardous waste and materials in October 2020, and the full operation underway now.
Today, we are pleased to report that almost all of these fire-damaged home sites have been cleared, and many communities are rebuilding months ahead of schedule.
We are also pleased to report that the Baalmans received their new home this past summer.
Finding solutions and overcoming challenges have been at the center of this work. Standing up an emergency response operation in a matter of weeks required flexibility and acceptance that changes would be necessary along the way.
This was most evident when Oregon was confronted with the task of evaluating and removing thousands of burned and dying hazard trees lining communities and state highways. With wildfire devastation visible around every turn, the federally required activity of removing these safety threats compounded already existing trauma.
Given the current climate crisis, wildfire recovery sometimes seems as though it's on repeat, restarting each summer. As we wrap up work from 2020, we want to sincerely thank Oregonians for your collaboration, grit and resilient spirit. With you, this work has helped reopen schools, summer camps, local businesses, fish hatcheries and recreation areas.
It's cleared the way for rebuilding new lives and housing options. It's kept highways open and free of falling trees and other debris while providing wood for habitat, conservation projects and energy programs. Cleanup work has strived to equitably provide Oregon jobs while ultimately making sure that no more lives are lost to the 2020 wildfires.
While we sincerely hope that Oregon never relives this traumatic experience, ODOT and the Task Force stand ready to help and were honored to be called upon during Oregon's time of need.
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