Clackamas County wildfire response: 'We must do better'
On Tuesday, state and local government partners presented to the Board of County Commissioners about wildfire preparedness, an area Chair Tootie Smith said was an all around failure in 2020.
"I do think government has failed horribly in this on everybody, from the county to the state to the federal, and we must do better," Smith said.
Smith recounted touring Clackamas County's southern area with Commissioner Martha Schrader after last year's wildfires, meeting with people who were, in her words, "abandoned" by state agencies, left to flee or, as some did, stay to fight the fires themselves.
"They told us that there was no communications, no early warning systems, no responses, and everybody has a personal responsibility, but government has the ultimate responsibility in that," Smith said.
Smith also expressed dissatisfaction with the federal response, and specifically cited Senate Bill 762, which directs the state's Legislative Policy and Research Office to study strategies to promote wildfire response and recovery.
"I've had some private conversations with our governor, because I was concerned that... I did not see a lot of wildfire mitigations go to the individual counties. And so I started calling up my legislative partners. 'Where is it? Where's the protection for Clackamas County, where's the protection?' It wasn't there," Smith said.
Smith said that she thinks Gov. Kate Brown's "attitude has enhanced over what it was last fire season," but was adamant that she found last year's handling of wildfires unacceptable.
"When there's a fire burning that I can see from my house, and no effort is done to put it out because it's under federal grounds, what the heck is going on with our state government?" Smith asked. "If I was governor, I don't care who owns that property... it would have been doused immediately. Damn the consequences."
"The policy of letting wildfire burn on federal lands is not acceptable, that needs to be changed," she added. "If you can't change at the federal level, take responsibility for our property in our state because it may be federally owned lands, but it's in our state and impacts our people."
Matthew Garrett, Oregon's director of wildfire recovery, shared several areas in wildfire response and recovery that they are looking to improve in, based on takeaways from last year's events. Indicated areas included general planning, fire management and suppression, economic revitalization and public dissemination of information in a manner accessible across all languages.
Smith said she was impressed with the presentation, calling it "quite profound."
"This is an excellent presentation. I've always enjoyed working with you; I'm thankful that you came here today," Smith said to Garrett.
Other presentations came from Clackamas Fire Chief Nick Browne and Bill Messner, director of wildfire mitigation and resilience at Portland General Electric.
Browne noted that Clackamas Fire is taking this year's conditions incredibly seriously and detailed the many steps it is taking to minimize wildfire risk, including adding a new hand crew, increasing training, improving public safety education and alerts, establishing grant programs toward public safety and strengthening partnerships with PGE.
Messner gave a slideshow presentation, updating commissioners on year-round wildfire preparations and communications for 2021, including specified Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) zones, a proactive measure to mitigate wildfire risk with deliberate power shutoffs in certain areas.
Smith commended both presenters, calling Clackamas Fire's work "very encouraging" and saying PGE has done a great job "hardening" their systems.
She added that civilians have a "personal responsibility" to take necessary precautions to keep themselves safe despite all of the hard work from government and private companies, but that the events of last year highlighted many areas for an improved government response.
"I learned through the last fire season and the last ice storm that we could do better. And so we are doing better," Smith said.
Town halls scheduled
Clackamas Fire is hosting three Community Town Hall events for an in-depth discussion on the outlook of the 2021 Wildfire Season, defensible space and prevention measures to protect your home or business. Join firefighters for Q&A from 6-7 p.m. on July 20 at Eagle Creek Station 18, July 22 at Beavercreek Station 10 and Aug. 9 at Redland Station 11.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.