firefighting

A helicopter assists in firefighting in one of the dozens of fires burning across Oregon in September 2020. 

At least 10 people are dead and 22 are missing in the dozens of fires that have burned more than 1 million acres and filled skies with choking smoke across the state.

"Our state has been pushed to its limits," Gov. Kate Brown said during a press briefing Monday in Salem. "“It’s really hard to wrap our heads around the devastation, pain and suffering.” 

There are 34 active fires, including six of over 100,000 acres. Hazardous air quality was reported Monday at 20 of the 36 locations in Oregon, including cities as far apart as Portland and Pendleton. Over the past weekend, Oregon had the worst air quality in the world, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and international air quality websites.

“The smoke blanketing the state is a constant reminder that this tragedy has not yet come to an end,” Brown said.

Air quality levels are expected to improve in many areas by the weekend, but state officials said it was a matter of very bad air becoming just bad air. 

Brown said the state has formally requested a federal disaster declaration. A preliminary declaration was approved last week by President Donald Trump.

The state has been able to obtain 250,000 N95 face masks, which will be distributed primarily to agricultural workers and those on tribal lands, who Brown said had been especially affected by both the fires and COVID-19.

The west-blowing winds with gusts up to 50 mph that fanned many of the fires last week have largely dissipated. That's allowed firefighters to shift from evacuating people to trying to contain, push back and eventually extinguish some of the blazes.

"We've had four days of good firefighting weather," said Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Grafe said progress had been made on most of the fires under 20,000 acres around the state. Lines were also holding on there fires that have burned more than 100,000 acres: the Holiday Farm Fire east of Eugene, the Archie Creek Fire east of Roseburg, and the Slater Fire burning in both Oregon and California south of Cave Junction.

The more than 450,000-acre fire complex created by the joining of the Lionshead, Beachie Creek and Riverside fires has been significantly slowed at what was its most active point southeast of Portland suburbs in Clackamas County.

But Grafe said firefighters are concerned about a stubborn blaze in Warm Springs, near where the Lionshead Fire started.

While weather is helping firefighters in most parts of the state, Grafe said there were concerns about rains with lightning that are expected Wednesday. They could ignite new blazes, particularly in Central and Eastern Oregon. A possible resurgence of west-blowing winds in southern Oregon could stall progress on fires in Jackson, Klamath and Lake counties.

Officials said with weather clearing, they hope to utilize more aircraft, particularly on fires around the Oregon Coast, including Lincoln City. These include National Guard HH-60M helicopters that can carry "Bambi buckets" filled with retardant or water.

But a unique problem has cropped up: Drones. The flying cameras are a popular toy for many people, but pose a threat to aircraft that could be damaged or even crash if they collide with one. If drones are in the way of a firefighting run by aircraft, the plane or helicopter would have to be grounded.

“Keep those drones on the ground," Grafe said.

Despite several question marks with some of the fires, Grafe said he was finally feeling positive about the ability to go on the offensive again the blazes.

"Overall, we are moving forward favorably," Grafe said.

State officials said there are now 5,600 firefighters battling the blazes, up from 3,000 last week. 

Along with local and state firefighters, the force includes more than 600 National Guard soldiers and 30 teams of inmates from the Department of Corrections.

Firefighters, medical teams and other first responders from Canada, North Dakota, Michigan, California and Washington are involved. Vermont and Nevada have offered to send crews.

National Guard commanders in Idaho, Montana and Florida say they can send soldiers to Oregon.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent a large staff to the state and a regular Army battalion is in training and could be deployed. The American Red Cross and other non-profit and non-governmental agencies have sent volunteers.

"The help is pouring in from across the country," said Andrew Phelps, Director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management.

Phelps said the state's official death count of 10 people are fatalities certified by the state medical examiner. The 22 missing are by the Office of Emergency Management's count. Local officials have reported additional dead and missing.

The state plans on soon adding an official daily update on the fires, much like the Oregon Health Authority's daily tally on COVID-19 cases and deaths.

The smoke across Oregon is unlikely to get significantly better soon, said Gabriela Goldfarb, Environmental Public Health Section Manager at the Oregon Health Authority, although it will improve.

That did not mean the air would be clear.

"That just means dropping from one bad air quality to another," she said.

Goldfarb said smoke-related complaints were accounting for a spike in hospital emergency room visits.

The toxic smoke particles are especially dangerous for those with asthma, pregnant women, children, the elderly and those with breathing problems. 

In the hazardous areas in many parts of the states, people should stay indoors with windows closed, drink water and avoid exertion.

"Stop work outdoors," Goldfarb said.

Most symptoms are immediate — shortness of breath, headaches and fatigue. But symptoms can be delayed, cropping up as much as two weeks after polluted air is inhaled.

The smoke has caused a public health recommendation whiplash for many in Oregon. Last week, residents were urged to meet people outdoors as a way to reduce COVID-19 exposure by dissipating air more rapidly to avoid infection. With the fires, resident are now being told to stay inside.

Goldfarb said both crises exist side-by-side and have to be taken into account. She said some of the symptoms of smoke inhalation and the coronavirus infection are similar, such as coughing and difficulty breathing. 

Smoke inhalation doesn't normally cause a fever or gastrointestinal distress, which are signs of COVID-19. 

While the immediate focus is on fighting the fires, Brown said the state was already preparing for recovery from the disaster.

She said she would likely call a special session of the Legislature after the Nov. 3 election to deal with the fires, COVID-19 and the economic fallout from both.

The special session could be called earlier if the situation becomes more acute as lawmakers hear the "sense of urgency" from constituents.

"Our Oregon families are hurting across the state, they’ve lost thousands of homes," she said.

Among those whose homes were destroyed is Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod, R-Stayton, whose home burned to the ground in the Beachie Creek Fire. 

Brown also singled out Upper McKenzie Fire and Rescue Chief Christiana Rainbow Plews, known locally as "Chief Rainbow," whose units were the first to respond to the Holiday Farm Fire. As she and her crew evacuated people to safety, the fire destroyed the homes of Plews and several of her crew. Though she knew she was part of the unfolding tragedy, Plews continued doing her job.

“Chief Rainbow stayed on the front lines," Brown said. "This is what we do in Oregon — we care for each other."

Brown said she has activated the Economic Recovery Council, led by Treasurer Tobias Read and Labor and Industries Commissioner Val Hoyle. She has also formed a Disaster Recovery Cabinet led by senior state staff.

Brown has also tapped three major foundations to form the "2020 Community Rebuilding Fund" to generate private and non-profit contributions to helping the state rebound from all the challenges this year. Brown said the plan would involve the Ford Family Foundation, the Meyer Memorial Trust and the Oregon Community Foundation.

Brown cautioned that the fire emergency is still ongoing and conditions could change rapidly. But, like COVID-19, there will be an end at some point.

“The only way out of this crisis is to go through it, and we’ll go through it together,” she said.

Brown late Monday said she would line-item veto several appropriations in order to save $65 million that can be used to preserve funding for the state's wildfire effort while maintaining the constitutionally-mandated balanced budget. The action would go before the Legislature's Emergency Board, the committee of top lawmakers in both parties that can take limited actions while the Legislature is not in session.

Brown is required under law to give lawmakers five days notice of her intent to use her veto. Brown also requested the Emergency Board set aside at least $150 million from the state's emergency fund for requests she will submit relating to the fires. The board reportedly has only $200 million left in its funds before the new session of the Legislature convenes in January.

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