We've written before about the unique challenges posed by our narrow transportation corridor through South Columbia County.
As everyone knows, the main road is Highway 30, a.k.a. Columbia River Highway, a.k.a. St. Helens Road. And as everyone knows, railroad tracks run alongside the highway from North Portland to the Port Westward Industrial Park.
And so, as our television screens filled with images of clogged traffic and advancing wildfires as thousands of Clackamas County residents evacuated their homes earlier this month, we couldn't help but think: What if it happened here?
Columbia County and partner agencies are no strangers to planning for disaster.
After a unit train loaded with crude oil derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013 — the first in a string of horrifying oil-by-rail wrecks — attention locally turned to how to prevent, or mitigate, a similar catastrophe along the Portland & Western line.
The Dyno Nobel fertilizer plant north of Columbia City has also attracted its share of attention. In 2015, more than six tons of anhydrous ammonia — a toxic gas — was accidentally released from the plant, drifting downwind and causing some Columbia City residents to report breathing difficulties and eye irritation. Dyno Nobel was slapped with a $250,000 criminal fine and agreed to pay close to $1.5 million to settle a civil suit over the chemical discharge.
And then, of course, there's the beloved rural character of Columbia County itself — something that worked against Clackamas County as wildfires barreled through Cascade mountain passes, pushed by dry easterly winds.
According to the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, some 88% of Columbia County's land area is considered forestland, whether managed by the state government, the federal government or held privately. A hot, dry summer will prime forestland to burn, especially if dense brush accumulates and trees are growing close together.
While the cause of many of Oregon's wildfires in August and September haven't yet been determined for sure, at least some were caused by electrical equipment failing, and the Beachie Creek Fire that devastated Santiam Pass east of Salem is believed to have been started by a lightning strike. Another, the Chehalem Mountain-Bald Peak Fire south of Hillsboro, was reportedly started by an improperly extinguished campfire on private property, in violation of a burn ban.
What if it happened here?
Depending on where the fire started and whether it's able to jump, or threaten to jump, across Highway 30, Columbia County's spine could effectively be severed. It's the same risk agencies saw years ago in evaluating a potential oil-by-rail disaster along Highway 30.
Whereas in Washington and Clackamas counties, the road network is a sprawling web of arterials, Columbia County — the Vernonia and Mist areas excluded — effectively relies on one. As those who commute from Scappoose or St. Helens to workplaces in Portland, Hillsboro and Beaverton know all too well, when Highway 30 is blocked, there are seldom any easy ways around it.
People living south of a wildfire closure of Highway 30 would likely need to head south toward Portland. Those living north would need to head toward Longview, Washington, or the coast. While sheriff's deputies and police officers would likely be pressed into action helping to direct the flow of traffic, cramming the populations of Scappoose, Warren, St. Helens, Columbia City, Deer Island, Prescott, Goble and Rainier onto the highway all at once would severely strain the road's capacity.
All of this goes to show the importance of emergency planning and preparedness — and the importance of emergency prevention. While we can't stop a windstorm or lightning or hot summer weather, we can take care to reduce fire risk.
Forest management is important. The Oregon Forest Resources Institute notes that suppressing wildfires is costly and difficult, as we've seen with more than 1 million acres in Oregon burning this fire season alone.
To reduce the risk of large, out-of-control fires, experts say that techniques to thin out forests — not simply clear-cut them, but to reduce their density — are important. Paradoxical though it may seem, experts increasingly recommend a technique that dates back long before the arrival of settlers on the Oregon Trail: prescribed burning, in which fires are deliberately set and kept under control in order to burn away dry brush and create breaks in which there is no fuel left for a wildfire to consume. The Kalapuya people who inhabited Oregon for millennia used prescribed burning to keep the land healthy and promote the growth of their staple foods.
Columbia County residents and visitors should also strictly adhere to burn bans. While burn bans are applied — and should be closely followed — across the region, failure to comply with bans is a particular issue on Sauvie Island, which sees many people come from out of the area to enjoy river beaches. In late July, a wildfire burned more than 90 acres on the island, prompting local fire agencies to remind people that a burn ban had been in effect.
Lastly, the eruption of dangerous wildfires this month and the choking miasma of smoke that accompanied it should serve as a reminder to everyone that it's important to have a plan.
If you aren't sure where your important documents and family heirlooms are stashed in your home, take a few minutes now to go find them.
Think about places you could go, and routes you could take to get there, and transportation modes you could use, if there were a disaster to your north or a disaster to your south and you had to evacuate your home.
Make sure you have some non-perishable food, bottled water and other essentials on hand. Consider having masks or respirators rated to filter out what's called PM2.5, the tiny particles in smoke, on hand as well.
And discuss your plans with your partner or family, making sure you are on the same page about what to do if there is an emergency and that everyone's needs are addressed.
We do have some particular challenges in Columbia County, but obstacles are best negotiated with foreknowledge and diligent planning. Let's all do what we can to keep this county green and our families safe as we (hopefully) exit an eventful fire season and start preparing for the next one.
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