This has been the summer of awfulness in Oregon.
Pandemic. Shuttered businesses. Lost jobs. Drought. Unemployment fiascos. Chaos in parts of Portland. And now, deadly wildfires unprecedented in their scope.
Words such as “unprecedented” and “historic” have been tossed around so much, especially this year, that they have almost lost their meaning.
But this week’s wildfires are both. Fueled by high wind and historic drought, wildfires exploded with such intensity that firefighters could only focus on finding and evacuating residents instead of containing the fire. And time and again, firefighters had to pull back.
“Oregon, my Oregon is hurting,” said Senate President Peter Courtney, a reference to the state song, as he concluded a legislative committee meeting on Thursday.
“This is no longer Democrats/Republicans talking. We have a suffering going on in our state the likes of which has never happened before, I believe.”
The infamous Tillamook Burn, a series of catastrophic blazes during 1933-51 in the Coast Range, burned 355,000 acres. In comparison, by the time you are reading this column, this week’s catastrophic fires will have neared 1 million acres across Oregon. And by Thursday evening, 500,000 people had been told to evacuate from their homes, campsites, nursing homes, prisons and other sites.
State officials warn that every Oregonian, regardless of location, should monitor evacuation alerts. For the first time, Gov. Kate Brown has declared a statewide conflagration emergency. Backed by Oregon’s congressional delegation, Brown has asked for federal help, including mortuary assistance and a battalion of military personnel trained to fight fires.
“I just want to be upfront with Oregonians and reiterate that we expect to see a great deal of loss as a result of these fires, both in terms of structures and in terms of human lives,” Brown said this week. “It could be the greatest loss in human lives and property due to wildfires in our state’s history.”
Last year’s meek wildfire season was a welcome respite from the preceding years. Still, Oregon had been warned.
Andrew Phelps, the state’s emergency management director, previously cautioned legislators that every inch of Oregon was at risk of some type of natural disaster. The Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response last year called for policy changes, modernization of firefighting services, and fire-prevention work that could cost billions of dollars. The council’s report said such investments would pay off, because the long-term economic cost from wildfires on average was 11 times greater than the initial price tag of fighting the fires.
“With firefighting costs exceeding $500 million during high-fire seasons, comprehensive costs to Oregonians total several billion dollars — for a single year. Over a 20-year time span, comprehensive costs to Oregonians may easily total tens of billions of dollars. By investing in restoration treatments, Oregon may avoid these costs while creating green jobs in rural Oregon,” the report said.
That work has not yet happened amid politics, a pandemic and other budget priorities.
Oregonians are deeply divided over politics. But this week, Oregonians are united in their sorrow, fear and resilience.
Maybe not everyone. Some operators of motels or other lodging reportedly have charged unusually high room rates to evacuees, prompting Brown to issue an executive order against price gouging. Meanwhile, authorities have made arrests for looting in fire-damaged communities.
Wildfires don’t care about politics or party lines. Rep. David Gomberg, D-Otis, participated in Thursday’s legislative meeting by phone even though his home was presumed destroyed. His family evacuated before dawn Wednesday, and flames descended within the hour. The parents of Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, live not far from the Gombergs and also evacuated safely.
“We are safe but so many others have lost everything. That’s true in this part of the state and other parts of the state as well,” Gomberg said. “So many people have lost so much, it’s going to take the best we have, the best we can be, to rebuild Oregon as we move through this difficult, difficult time.”
So … will Oregon rise to the occasion or will a summer of awfulness be followed by an autumn of recrimination and election-year venom?
What they said: Here are excerpts from what several legislators wrote in their constituent newsletters this week, starting with a Southern Oregon lawmaker whose empathy came through clearly.
Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland: “My heart’s broken after touring Talent, Phoenix and their outskirts today. I hope you are safe right now and didn’t experience too much loss. If you’ve been evacuated, it has to be unbearable not to know for sure what’s happened to your home. If you know that it’s still there, please — and this has to be truly difficult — don’t try to return before getting permission. Following the directions of our overburdened responders and public safety folks is critical right now, even though you must be bursting to get home.”
Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, R-Salem: “It is imperative that we all take personal responsibility for our safety, our family’s safety, and also lookout for neighbors where possible. The response I have seen from members of our communities warms my heart.”
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland: “In a year already filled with too much pain and loss, my heart breaks for all the Oregonians whose lives and livelihoods are being affected by the unprecedented fires ravaging our state.”
Rep. E. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls: “We have never seen anything quite like this in our lifetime. That said I (am) confident in our state forestry team and firefighters ability to contain these fires as soon as humanly possible. I am also encouraged by what I see in Oregonians helping other Oregonians to cope with loss of property and, in some cases, loved ones. That is the true Oregon spirit. Stay safe everyone.”