Oregon legislators will gather by video conference next week to hear the latest word on the state’s worsening budget situation and get updates on wildfires, school reopenings, unemployment compensation and COVID-19.
During five days of virtual committee meetings, they also will discuss issues ranging from textbook affordability to pesticides.
One thing won’t happen: a special legislative session to act on any of those issues.
After two special sessions this summer, a third had been predicted for next week’s Legislative Days, especially since the state’s quarterly economic and revenue forecasts are being released at 9 a.m. on Wednesday. No session was announced, so I asked Gov. Kate Brown about plans for one.
“I anticipate that we will have an additional special session before the February session, the long session of 2021,” Brown said.
“Timing of that, it’s likely to be after the (Nov. 3) election, but I know that the Legislature as well as am I are feeling a sense of urgency in terms of the need. Our Oregon families are hurting in communities across the state. We’ve lost thousands of homes, and I know that we are all feeling extremely concerned and want to make sure that we get folks into shelter or appropriate housing before the rains begin.
“So at this point in time, likely to be after the election but obviously up for discussion.”
Among those who lost homes to wildfire is Oregon Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod, whose house was along the Santiam River in the Lyons-Mill City area.
Brown visited the Beachie Creek Fire area on Wednesday. She was joined by Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem; Adjutant General Michael Stencel, Oregon National Guard; Dave Stuckey, deputy director, Oregon Military Department; Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection, state Department of Forestry; State Fire Marshal Mariana Ruiz-Temple; Andrew Phelps, director, state Office of Emergency Management; incident commanders Les Hallman and Brian Gales; and State Forester Peter Dougherty.
Journalists were not along. During Brown’s press conference on Thursday, I asked her why.
“I think it’s really important that press have an accurate sense of what’s happening on the ground,” she said. “The press has been critically important for us in terms of getting our messaging out to Oregonians about evacuation levels, the situations regarding the fire. We will continue to bring the press on as it is safe to do so.”
Brown’s staff provided a few photos after Wednesday’s tour. Unlike California, Oregon does not have laws strongly guaranteeing media access to report on wildfires and other disasters.
Daniel Berlant, with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said fire officials there recognize it’s important for the public to understand what’s going on.
“During a natural disaster and during a wildfire, people are making decisions about their family and their own safety, and in many cases, people are going to follow our request for evacuations if they’re actually able to see how destructive the disaster is,” Berlant told the Associated Press.
In that AP article, Scott Stoddard, editor of The Grants Pass Daily Courier, said photojournalists could not document the flames that leveled much of Phoenix, which is about 30 miles southeast of Grants Pass.
“It’s either photos provided by an agency or residents, and that seems out of balance when the professional storytellers aren’t there on the scene,” Stoddard said.
My experience: To get a first-hand sense of the Beachie Creek Fire aftermath, last week I obeyed the closure of eastbound Highway 22 and carefully drove the backroads from Stayton through Lyons, Gates and Mill City, and then returned to Salem on westbound Highway 22, which was open.
Law enforcement and National Guard members now are staffing some roadblocks around wildfire areas. On Sept. 9, I saw few. Returning home on 22, I was surprised by the number of eastbound vehicles that circumvented signs, barriers and trucks indicating that side of the highway was closed.
Everyone else seemed to be driving cautiously. No one, including me, was stopping to gawk or take photos. Neither were they challenging the “Fire Activity Ahead,” “Road Closed” or “Detour” signs. Two or three firetrucks passed by, as well as what might have been volunteer firefighters in personal vehicles, and everyone pulled off the road immediately. Driving west on 22, in several spots we had to move into the eastbound lane to avoid power lines or trees lying in the westbound lane.
During a press conference later that day, I asked Brown and then-Deputy State Fire Marshal Ruiz-Temple about seemingly little enforcement of the eastbound Highway 22 closure. “As the fire progresses or changes, we are putting those checkpoints in place,” Ruiz-Temple said.
At a subsequent press conference, Brown told journalists that we were to stay out of fire areas.
I did not head farther up the Santiam Canyon, where there reportedly was even greater devastation in Detroit, as there was in Phoenix, Talent and parts of Lane County.
Fire is fickle. I saw a patchwork of burned buildings next to property that seemed unscathed.
“Fire moves in many different ways, based on the type of fire we’re seeing and the winds, so it’s very often you’ll run into a community where you’re seeing patchwork loss and then in some places complete loss,” Ruiz-Temple said in response to my questions that day. “I think you’ll see that patchwork of loss and non-loss on all of these fires.”
As Brown and others have warned, the loss was great — in lives, memories and property. Rebuilding communities and replacing infrastructure will take years.
Praise for the president: Brown and other Democrats have been harshly critical of President Donald Trump throughout his tenure. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has sued the Trump administration numerous times and this week joined a coalition of 24 states and municipalities challenging changes in Environmental Protection Agency regulations on methane emissions.
Then on Thursday, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury blamed Trump as she decried reports of vigilantism in wildfire areas.
“Disinformation, scapegoating and the unfounded fear of others, encouraged and normalized by falsehoods and hate from the White House and amplified on Facebook, is as dangerous as anything we have ever faced. That is why catastrophic fires that brought us together, are now so effectively driving us apart,” Kafoury said in a statement.
However, a week earlier, Brown was asking for Trump’s help, speaking with the president and his chief of staff about 6:15 p.m. Sept. 10. I asked Brown to describe the conversation. She said Trump was on Air Force One or getting on board at the time:
“I explained to him that the situation on the ground was extremely dire, that at that point in time we had roughly 40,000 Oregonians who had been evacuated, the extent of the fire damage. He said, ‘You have all of our support. Please let us know what you need. And God bless Oregon.’”
On Monday of this week, Brown followed up with a seven-page letter, along with the official four-page application for a presidential disaster declaration, which stated, “This unprecedented wildfire emergency, brought on in part by drought conditions, low humidities, and extreme winds, exceeds the capabilities and resources of the local governments and Tribes involved, and the mutual aid, Conflagration, and state resources which have been made available.”
On Tuesday afternoon while aboard Air Force One, Trump signed the declaration, which includes federal aid to individuals and businesses. “I am grateful for the White House’s swift response,” Brown said in a statement the next day.