Task Force management responds to Secretary of State advisory report
Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan released an advisory report today that found “the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) appears to be doing well managing the hazardous tree removal cleanup from the 2020 wildfires”.
ODOT Debris Management Task Force Management Response to “Advisory Report: ODOT Worked Quickly to Oversee the Largest Wildfire Debris Removal Operation in State History”
MANAGEMENT RESPONSE FROM:
Mac Lynde, ODOT Deputy Administrator, Delivery & Operations Division; Frank Reading, ODOT Wildfire Cleanup Area Commander, Debris Management Task Force
The 2020 September wildfires serve as one of Oregon’s most devastating disasters, burning more than one million acres, destroying thousands of homes, and claiming the lives of nine Oregonians. Following these tragic events, Oregon communities were confronted with an immediate need to remove the structural debris left behind and more than one hundred thousand fire-damaged, dead trees blocking roads and interfering with rebuilding and recovery efforts.
Providing the critical first step for helping these communities rebuild, the Oregon Governor’s Office and the Wildfire Economic Recovery Council created the Debris Management Task Force (Task Force)—led by ODOT for its contract management expertise—to immediately begin work clearing the aftermath of these fires, and significant, unprecedented progress continues today. Ahead of the initial eighteen-month schedule, 90% of home sites have been cleared, 70% of hazard trees have been cut or removed, and communities have started rebuilding and moving forward with next steps in their multi-year recovery process.
As an emergency response operation built to adapt and change over time, the work of the Task Force has remained nimble and has evolved to respond to the critical needs of wildfire survivors, operational discoveries in the field, emergency management best practices, and important Oregon values such as community safety, local jobs, a diverse workforce, and environmental stewardship.
Earlier this year, as progress ramped up and emergency recovery work was more visible in communities, questions were raised specifically about hazard tree removal, the criteria used to determine which trees posed safety threats, and the qualifications of the crews making decisions. To further investigate, ODOT sought out the assistance of an experienced independent forester and arborist with in-depth hazard tree expertise to review this work and make any potential recommendations. The findings from this report provided an ‘A’ grade to the operation underway and suggested that no substantive changes be made.
To further investigate as requested by ODOT, this initial review provided context and background for the Secretary of State Audits Division to conduct a supplemental independent, multi-month review. ODOT and the Task Force appreciate the findings of this review and emphasize the descriptions provided that highlight the complex and unprecedented nature of the hazard tree removal process.
In response to the advisory report
Throughout, ODOT and the Task Force have appreciated and welcomed the engaged participation of public officials, legislative partners, community and advocacy organizations, wildfire survivors and others to inform and guide this work. When this work began, there was no detailed playbook available for Oregon, but we all came together to efficiently and collaboratively develop a blueprint that can be both carried forward, and revised and improved upon as necessary, for years to come in the event of future disasters.
In response to specific items included in the review, we appreciate both the comprehensive story that was shared outlining the details of this complex operation, and the thorough and comprehensive analysis, acknowledging that emergency response work will always exist as an iterative and evolving process. The review also serves as a definitive summary of the massive undertaking accomplished to date to provide the critical first step towards recovery for Oregon’s fire-impacted communities. In the spirit of continuous improvement, we support and agree with the opportunities listed in the report and elaborate further below:
Future planning: Much has been accomplished for Oregon thus far, and we want to build on successes and lessons learned even further in the event of another disaster. This work leveraged a broad range of expertise and state and federally required plans to structure and guide operations, navigate regulatory frameworks, protect the environment and culturally sensitive areas, and manage teams. While no single framework for an event of this scope and magnitude existed previously, the past year has provided many lessons to incorporate into an extensive After Action Review process and report for future planning efforts. We look forward to ongoing collaborative discussions as we plan ahead and reflect.
Training and documentation: Due to an immediate and urgent need, the training of more than 1,200 contractors, crews, and staff occurred simultaneously in real-time, while documenting the many items required for federal reimbursement, and while also delivering an emergency response operation in the field. In turn, this experience has provided a checklist for responding to and addressing similar events. The past year has identified key areas for targeted training opportunities for all crews, including ongoing training for implementing project-specific Environmental Protection Plans which remains a top priority and opportunity for improvement.
Delivering Oregon values and an equitable workforce: Embracing an “Oregon helping Oregon” approach, we are proud that our contracting process reflected a strong commitment to Oregon values, a diverse workforce, and providing equitable contracting opportunities to a range of businesses. This includes building a team of contractors that delivered nearly a thousand local Oregon jobs, formed an equitable and diverse workforce, and provided training and apprenticeship opportunities for traditionally underserved communities.
Contractor capacity and pre-contracting: For future events, having a “bench” of contractors—and Oregon-based contractors now skilled in this type of emergency response work—to call upon will serve the state well going forward. With this infrastructure now in place, we look forward to applying this system for future rapid response when necessary and appreciate the outreach work contracting staff undertook to bring new and underserved businesses into the operation. Additionally, best practices for oversight and accountability for overseeing such a massive contract administration effort were developed. Having created this framework from scratch, Oregon will now have the benefit of pre-planning for next time and having contractors ready to go pre-disaster.
Organizational development and field operation staffing: Standing up an operation of more than a thousand crew members, more than a hundred contracts, and recruiting a core leadership team required quickly developing an organizational structure that could adapt along the way. This also required a need to recruit top talent quickly, taking many staff away from their regular positions for an extended period of time. Similar to having a bench of contractors on-call and available, having a dedicated team versed in Incident Command training, and processes and procedures in place for the next event, will be critical for future success.
Coordination and information flow amongst stakeholders and jurisdictions: Internal coordination and communication is a critical part of any emergency response operation. To be expected—given the large number of state and federal agencies, contractors, statewide recovery staff, county partners and others working towards a common cause at the same time—a brief period of creating structure and finding the right “glue” for the most effective internal communication channels was navigated and explored.
As a state-managed, locally-coordinated operation, there were instances where coordination and the flow of operational information could have been improved between and amongst state staff, local public officials, and field crews. After some initial challenges, however, a cadence was developed as the correct stakeholders were plugged into relevant meetings, and as processes and expectations were implemented ensuring that information was shared from briefings and then dispersed widely to local stakeholders— from weekly coordination meetings, presentations, proactive calls from the call center hotline, and the large volume of external communication channels provided digitally, in-person, and by mail. Once stakeholders tuned into the operation, learned more about and became comfortable with the many coordination tools at their disposal, a rhythm was established, and statewide stakeholder coordination and communication improved.
The unfortunate reality that Oregon may experience another devastating wildfire event in coming years is not taken lightly. Looking forward, we invite future discussions and look forward to input and feedback that balances a range of perspectives rooted in safety and recovery to further guide all statewide emergency response planning. As this work continues to wind down, we will continue to both solicit and apply lessons learned, and also investigate or take corrective action in response to any concerns that may arise.
We want to sincerely thank Oregonians for their collaboration, grit and resilient spirit. Together, this work has helped reopen schools, summer camps, local businesses, fish hatcheries and recreation areas. It has cleared the way for rebuilding new lives and housing options and 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 making sure that no more lives are lost to the 2020 wildfires.
We know that there are always opportunities for improvement, and we will continue to build these lessons learned into all facets of our work for next time. While we sincerely hope that Oregon never relives this traumatic experience, ODOT and the Task Force stand ready to help and we were honored to be called upon during Oregon’s time of need.
For media inquiries regarding the review, contact the Office of the Secretary of State:
Carla Axtman 503-302-0056 Carla.L.AXTMAN@oregon.gov