When crises collide
"We have a crisis in the middle of a crisis in the middle of a crisis."
That's the way Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron defined September 2020's second week as county and state officials juggled spreading wildfires, thousands of displaced residents and unhealthy air while trying to keep abreast of COVID-19, which through the first week of the month in Marion County saw a spike in the positive percentage of testing results — 11.1%, significantly higher than the 5% or lower target.
"When I spoke to the governor last week, you know, it's almost like COVID was a warmup for getting ready for this," Cameron said.
What happens when wildfires and a pandemic collide?
For starters, the Woodburn Super-8 hotel, which had been rented in entirety by the county for use as a COVID-19 isolation and quarantine facility for county residents who cannot otherwise isolate, was converted to a facility to house residents evacuated by wildfire. All 81 rooms were filled, most due to overflow at the Oregon State Fairgrounds evacuation center.
Yamhill County stepped up to take in Marion County residents in need of isolation and quarantine.
"One of the major responsibilities of the local public health authority is to ensure for the safety and health of our first responders," Marion County Public Health Division Director Katrina Rothenberger told the Marion County Board of Commissioners on Sept. 16. "What that looks like is, as we have a bunch of firefighters coming into Oregon, we don't want them to get COVID and spread that and create an outbreak. So we've been working with our liaison to ensure that we have a smooth process for testing, isolation and quarantine for these folks and catching that early.
"We have actually have had to utilize this process already. It happened pretty seamlessly, and Yamhill County has been gracious enough to help us out with isolation and quarantine of our presumptive COVID cases or COVID positives," she added. "We are really thankful for their partnership at this time."
Rothenberger said county health officials also have focused on monitoring hospital statuses, long-term care facilities, foster homes, group homes, supporting personal protective equipment distribution to vulnerable residents, and providing an environmental health inspection of the congregate shelter at the fairgrounds.
"It's been quite a stretch on the public health system," Rothenberger said, noting that some of the staff working on these issues have been displaced themselves.
While public health officials were immersed with front-line evacuations and pandemic monitoring, public safety was fixated on the front-line hazards as the Beachie Creek Fire in the county sprawled to more than 190,000 acres, deploying 545 fire personnel fighting it.
Evacuations had remained in effect for areas east of Mehama, but immediate threats to communities to the north, such as Mount Angel and Silverton, had eased off. In addition to fire, hazards in the evacuated areas included fallen trees, boulders and even compromised septic tanks.
To illustrate the dangers, the board of commissioners projected a photograph of a damaged Oregon State Police patrol car that had been hit by a fallen tree while traveling on Highway 22 through the evacuated corridor.
Commissioner Sam Brentano read a public safety notice stating that between 10,000 to 80,000 trees in that highway corridor needed to be secured or removed for the area to be safe. Further concerns included vegetation removal combined with incoming rains that could potentially trigger landslides.
"We're working with ODOT, and they do have that section closed where they are working on removing trees and (other obstacles)," Marion County Sheriff Joe Kast said. "We're still working with the community and ODOT to try to help any way we can in providing very limited access to some of the areas around there."
Meanwhile, deputies from Marion and Linn counties kept busy with search and recovery and offered to drive by the premises of displaced property owners and report visible damages.
By the end of the week, ODOT opened a 4-mile stretch of Highway 22 between Mill City and Gates, but highway access west between Mill City and Mehama remained closed, requiring residents to use local roads to reach that open stretch.
"We're going to do everything we can to get people back (home), and that's our pledge," Brentano said.
More than 1,000 people and 1,400 livestock were evacuated to the state fairgrounds shelter between Tuesday, Sept. 7, and Sunday Sept. 13, when the county handed over operations to the Red Cross.
An overflow of more than 200 people were housed at the Woodburn Super-8.
County health officials paid several visits to the shelters to monitor safety, food service and overall living conditions. Another concern for long-term displacement of people who lost their homes is figuring out how to get election ballots to them.
Marion County Public Works Director Brian Nicholas said another obstacle involves damaged utilities, which he described as "extensive."
"Every utility, other than some pockets here and there, the rebuilding will be extensive before those utility services are restored," Nicholas said.
The list includes electric, landline communications, some cellular communications and water. Water systems in Detroit and Gates are completely out.
Federal funding for disaster relief has been extended to a number of Oregon counties, including Marion.
Nicholas noted that another potential safety issue could be structurally compromised septic tanks.
"For well over a decade now, I don't think anybody has put in a concrete septic tank; they're all plastic," Nicholas said. "When a ground fire moves in, it compromises the plastic, but the ground can still bridge over the tank. ... So it looks like it's firm until you step on it. It's just like having a trap door in your yard into a tank you don't want to enter."
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