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How Multnomah County is Preparing for Another Threatening Wildfire Season

Photo of a wildland firefighter extinguishing the remnants of a fire in Grant County, Oregon. The State of Oregon is making preparations to combat another high-intensity season of fire. Photo by Dagny Keltner.

Since the 1980s the number of large wildfires burned in Oregon and across the West has been on the rise, according to Oregon State University. With those growing numbers comes a growing need for protective measures and emergency preparedness plans to be strengthened. After two consecutive highly destructive fire seasons, Multnomah County, Oregon’s state government, and the entire Pacific Northwest are planning how to respond to another potentially devastating season of fire.  

For some residents, an extreme wildfire season could mean months without seeing family members who are first responders, or potentially evacuating homes and land, while others experience health conditions that could be exacerbated by poor air quality. Wildfire has the potential to impact everyone, but as Multnomah County makes preparations for smoke and evacuation, it is attempting to focus resources such as clean air spaces and cooling systems towards protecting particularly vulnerable communities first. 

Due to the high snowpack in the Cascade Range caused by an unusually wet spring that much of Western Oregon experienced, the beginning of fire season in Multnomah County is predicted by the National Interagency Fire Center to be mild and slightly delayed. However, Eastern and Central Oregon are at a far higher risk of fire due to drought, and the high risk is predicted to spread farther west in Oregon by mid-July before covering most of the region in August. 

According to a National Geographic article titled “The Science Connecting Wildfires to Climate Change,” “Climate change has inexorably stacked the deck in favor of bigger and more intense fires across the American West over the past few decades […] Increasing heat, changing rain and snow patterns, shifts in plant communities, and other climate-related changes have vastly increased the likelihood that fires will start more often and burn more intensely.” Wildfires are a natural and necessary component of ecosystems across the Pacific Northwest, but their steady increase in quantity and size over recent decades has caused troubles, overwhelming emergency response systems previously put in place by the State and increasing the presence that wildfires have in the lives of many Oregonians. 

“We know from the past several years that we’re fighting fires of a new age, made more intense by the impacts of climate change,” said Governor Kate Brown in a recent press conference. “Almost every fire season since I became Governor has been more complex and more difficult, from Chetco Bar in 2017, to the Labor Day fires of 2020 and last year’s Bootleg Fire.” 

The Chetco Bar Fire occurred in Southwest Oregon in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and burned over 200,000 acres of land. The Labor Day fires of 2020 consisted of five independent fires that ignited all within the span of a few days and burned over a million acres, consuming 4,000 homes. The Bootleg Fire of 2021 occurred in Southern Oregon and was the third largest ever recorded in Oregon State history. 

Multnomah County’s website states that wildfires and wildfire smoke have become some of the most pertinent dangers facing the region. “The risk of fire and smoke has been known for a long time, but responding has become more urgent in the last decade due to warmer winters and longer summers that have reduced snowpack, lengthened fire seasons and impacted natural ecosystems,” according to the site. Simultaneously with the heightened risk of fires, Multnomah County has experienced steady population growth, resulting in “more community members living alongside wildfire risk, and more people vulnerable to the health effects of smoke.” 

The Multnomah County Office of Emergency Management (MCEM) is responsible for overseeing the protection of county residents from the danger posed by wildfire. “We’re the department that specializes in disaster impacts, understanding disaster impacts and how to mitigate those impacts,” says Alice Busch, an incident Command System trainer, and coordinator at MCEM. “We’re working with communities that are impacted and different branches of government that are impacted by disasters and helping them be better prepared and devise some mitigation efforts.”

The majority of mitigation efforts that MCEM engages in are centered around connecting public and private organizations with one another in order to facilitate relief or prevention. Examples of these connections include work between independent contractors and governmental low-income housing programs to install HVAC systems with the capacity to filter out smoke. Without functioning air filtration, wildfire smoke poses a threat of contaminating the homes of residents with underlying health conditions. Additionally, MCEM has connected school buses with the police department to facilitate speedy wildfire evacuations. 

Busch emphasizes the importance of delegating tasks and resources to pre-existing community organizations rather than creating new ones to address fire-related issues, as they “have really long, trusted relationships with the communities that they’re serving,” says Busch. “So when the government comes in, we’re not as well received as a community based organization that’s been working with a group of people and knows their first names and is able to convince them to take advantage of the safety net that we’re trying to put together.” 

MCEM has been faced with difficult decisions regarding where to allocate limited resources toward emergency relief efforts. In previous years, during times of poor air quality, they have opened up facilities that are designated “clean air spaces,” open 24 hours a day, where at-risk community members without adequate smoke filtration systems in their homes can temporarily relocate. This year, however, MCEM hopes to avoid opening these facilities and instead rely on improving air filtration devices within residents’ homes due to the difficulty of transporting residents through zones of poor air quality while getting them somewhere safe, as well as the enormous cost of their operation.

Busch acknowledges the dedication that MCEM has to immediate emergency relief but also recognizes that it is not a long-term solution. “Every time we make one of those decisions to step forward in a crisis, we are pulling from something that is trying to address the root cause of why that is a crisis,” explains Busch. “Hopefully if we address climate change then we don’t have to open a clean airspace because we’re not going to have a lot of fires, so we won’t have a lot of smoke. But every time we have to open a hot weather, cold weather, or clean air space we are taking away from the programs that are trying to address the root causes of those issues.” As is common with such issues, she adds, “crisis [aid] gets funded but prevention doesn’t, mitigation doesn’t, and those longer-term root causes don’t, but when people are dying right now we end up throwing a lot of money at it, and it’s much more expensive to do that both in time, staffing, and resources, than it is to do those prevention.”

Moving into this fire season, Multnomah County is supported by the recently approved Oregon Senate Bill 762 which allocated $220 million to support the modernization of Oregon’s wildfire preparedness systems by “creating fire-adapted communities, developing safe and effective response, and increasing the resiliency of Oregon’s landscapes,” wrote the Oregon Department of Forestry. 

“All signs point to a difficult 2022 fire season that will challenge our firefighting teams and the capacity of our response systems,” Governor Brown said, but “the good news is that Oregon has one of the best wildfire response systems in the country.”

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