Unfortunately, residents throughout the rural parts of Oregon have become used to the ghastly sights and smells resulting from catastrophic wildfires ravaging the landscape. And while these disasters have become commonplace in areas like the southern part of the state, we experienced that same horror and terror last summer right here in Clackamas County.
Our county may be considered part of the Portland metropolitan area, but in all actuality, most of it is rural and includes vast swaths of federal forestlands. Given those circumstances, it’s quite surprising, and extremely lucky, that something like that hadn’t happened much sooner.
Despite all the devastation and property damage we experienced, Clackamas County had zero deaths resulting from last summer’s wildfires. I credit the hard work and dedication of our firefighters and other professionals for their efforts to protect the lives of our vulnerable citizens in difficult circumstances.
Often times, some people characterize these kinds of fires as inevitable and say it’s the result of “climate change.” But many Oregonians started warning us decades ago that the growing trend of leaving our government-owned forests unmanaged would have consequences that include leaving us more vulnerable to massive blazes. They were right.
What that means is, the kinds of fires that scorched earth and caused evacuations in our own backyards mere months ago are avoidable. That’s true, but only if we take the right approaches.
There are things we can do to prepare for these worst-case scenarios. For example, our communities, especially those that are close to heavily forested areas, should have evacuation routes already established and made available to the public. This simple step can go a long way towards saving lives when it matters the most, and should be coupled with an early warning communication system.
Long and short-term plans should also be in place to identify areas of our public forests most in need of maintenance. We must get people back to work in our woods to ensure that fuel loads are limited and kept under control.
Aside from the proactive and preventative steps that can be done locally, the state can also play a role.
Years back, a group of legislators formed the Wildfire Caucus in an attempt to develop legislation aimed at mitigating wildfire risks. That group is still active and meeting as the legislature’s 2021 session is underway.
As a former legislator, I’m familiar with the impact and influence that state lawmakers can have in creating solutions to complex problems. I’ve been in touch with the members of Clackamas County’s legislative delegation. And even though we may have some philosophical and ideological differences at times, I’m happy to report that everyone is on the same page when it comes to this issue. We all agree that the scenario we had last summer is one that we would all like to avoid repeating.
I’ll continue working with our legislators and my fellow commissioners in the coming months to ensure that we do all we can do to make Clackamas County as prepared as possible by the time wildfire season gets here this summer.