Reflecting on a year of wildfire cleanup and recovery
This post will appear in some form in various media outlets in the coming weeks as we commemorate the tragic September 2020 wildfires.
Tony and Judy Baalmann went to the same hill in Talent, Oregon every week.
Sitting and sipping coffee above a field of twisted metal, they watched as crews cleared materials and dump trucks rumbled by. Below them sat the footprint of where their home and community once stood, and where decades of life had transpired.
A year ago as wildfires ravaged Oregon, the Baalmans lost almost everything when the Almeda Drive Fire swept through their Rogue Valley neighborhood. Along with a global pandemic, medical procedures, and countless other obstacles, the Baalmans navigated the past year uncertain yet resilient — looking ahead one day at a time. As they sat atop their hill each week, watching as ODOT crews cleared the way for their next home, they were able to embrace some semblance of hope as they watched the progress underway week by week.
This story echoes throughout Oregon as we reflect on what recovery looks like and the turbulent year surrounding it. The 2020 wildfires left an unprecedented and destructive wake in its path, with more than a million acres burned, 4,000 homes and businesses destroyed and nine lives lost. And with the smoke settled, the charred, unrecognizable landscape continues to send traumatic reminders to everyone who calls these areas home, leaving Oregon with the enormous task of starting anew.
To begin the recovery and rebuilding effort, Governor Kate Brown and the Wildfire Economic Recovery Council created the Debris Management Task Force, a three-agency group headed by ODOT for its contract management expertise, to tackle this herculean task. Work started immediately and a massive operation consisting of a leadership team and more than 1,200 crew members were stood up in weeks. Then followed the required first step of removing hazardous waste and materials from sites in November 2020, which was immediately followed by launching the debris removal operation in December 2020.
Racing against time, the mission was unique and complex, even if seemingly straightforward on paper. With community safety a top priority, crews removed wildfire debris and fire-damaged trees from nearly 3,000 home sites and along state highways in eight counties. The timeline: ASAP, but not longer than 18 months.
Today, we are pleased to report that almost all of these fire-damaged home sites have been cleared and many communities are rebuilding, nearly six months ahead of schedule.
We are also grateful to report that the Baalman’s received their new home this summer.
In the spirit of reflection, finding solutions and overcoming challenges has been at the center of this work. With no playbook readily available at the time — and knowing that no pace would ever be fast enough — standing up an emergency response operation in a matter of weeks required flexibility and acceptance that changes would be necessary along the way. This was most evident when Oregon was confronted with the task of evaluating and removing thousands of burned and dying hazard trees lining communities and state highways. With wildfire devastation visible around every turn, the federally required activity of removing these safety threats compounded already existing trauma. Our crew members living in these corridors also mourned the fire-devastated landscape, and we sincerely hope that it’s a process that Oregon never needs to repeat.
As we arrive at the end of another wildfire season, the recovery journey can seem as though it’s on repeat, restarting at the end of each summer. As we wrap up work from 2020, we want to sincerely thank Oregon for your collaboration, grit and resilient spirit. With you, this work has helped reopen schools, summer camps, local businesses, fish hatcheries and recreation areas. It’s cleared the way for rebuilding new lives and housing options. It’s kept highways open and free of falling trees and other debris while providing wood for habitat, conservation projects and energy programs. Cleanup work has strived to equitably provide Oregon jobs while ultimately ensuring that no more lives are lost to the 2020 wildfires. While we sincerely hope that Oregon never relives this traumatic experience, ODOT and the Task Force stand ready to help if called upon.
And when the Baalman’s texted us a picture of their new home just a few weeks ago, we felt no greater honor than to have been able to help support Oregon’s next chapter.