Opening arguments were heard yesterday in a lawsuit against PacifiCorp claiming that its negligence started several devastating 2020 wildfires that burned across western Oregon. KEZI-TV reported that the class action suit was filed in September 2020, not long after the fire’s containment, by Linn County residents who lost their homes in the Beachie Creek Fire. The suit grew to include plaintiffs from other Oregon wildfires.
The complaint alleges that Pacific Power and its parent company, PacifiCorp, did not deactivate certain powerlines during the heavy winds in the late summer of 2020. When those east winds brought down trees, they connected with live powerlines, igniting fires that destroyed hundreds of structures and killed several people.
“PacifiCorp chose not to protect Oregonians — it did not live up to its obligation, it didn’t take any action to prevent fires, and now, in this case, PacifiCorp should bear the consequences,” said Nicholas Rosinia, attorney for the plaintiffs. KOBI5 News reported that Pacific Power attorneys countered that a decision to de-energize powerlines is complex and can’t be based on fire risk alone. “The possibility of an ignition must be weighed against the dangers of de-energization when whole cities and towns can be blanketed in darkness just when they need power the most,” said Doug Dixon, an attorney for the defendants.
The attorneys acknowledged that both Portland General Electric and Consumers Power, Inc. decided to turn off power in parts of their service areas around the Labor Day storms.
The Beachie Creek Fire was reported August 16, 2020 in the Opal Creek Wilderness about six miles northwest of Detroit Lake in Oregon, some 38 miles east of Salem. According to records in the daily national Incident Management Situation Report and GIS data, the fire was:
10 acres August 26, 10 days after it was reported
23 acres August 31, 15 days after it was reported
150 acres September 3, 18 days after it was reported
469 acres September 7, 22 days after it was reported; (before the winds began that night).
Plaintiffs are asking for more than $1.6 billion in damages, according to court documents. The trial is scheduled to last until at least mid-June.
The Oregonian reported that the Labor Day fires burned more than 1.2 million acres in Oregon, destroyed upwards of 5,000 homes and structures, and claimed nine lives. PacifiCorp is the primary defendant in litigation from the fires; the Portland-based utility, Oregon’s second largest, did not shut down power to any of its 600,000 customers during the windstorm. Its lines have been implicated in six separate fires, one of which started in its California service territory and burned across the state line into Oregon.
Jurors will determine PacifiCorp’s responsibility, if any, in four of those fires: the Santiam Canyon fires east of Salem, the Echo Mountain Complex near Lincoln City, the South Obenchain Fire near Eagle Point, and the Two Four Two Fire near the southwest Oregon town of Chiloquin. This is a historic trial and will likely reshape the way Pacific Northwest electric utilities respond to increasing wildfire risks influenced by climate change, persistent drought conditions, and increasing numbers of acres burned each year.
In November 2022, PacifiCorp settled another case out of court with two families who sued over the Archie Creek Fire, which burned more than 130,000 acres in Douglas County in 2020.
FEMA has begun moving Manufactured Housing Units (MHUs) onto a newly constructed site in Mill City, Oregon that will provide temporary housing for qualified wildfire survivors and their families.
Several communities southeast of Salem along Highway 22 suffered severe impacts from the Beachie Creek and Lionshead Fires which grew large during the wind event of September 7 and 8, 2020. Some of the worst hit towns were Mill City and Gates.
Construction on the new Mill City site began earlier this month, with work completed ahead of schedule. The site is currently scheduled to receive 13 manufactured housing units (MHUs) and can accommodate up to 16 MHUs, providing necessary temporary housing for the qualified residents of both Linn and Marion counties.
As soon as all MHU are delivered and placed on site, each unit will be given a final inspection ensuring they are ready for occupancy, and families will be scheduled to move into their temporary homes.
To date, 85 families whose homes were severely damaged or destroyed by this year’s wildfires have been approved for temporary housing units. These units are placed in established RV parks or in FEMA constructed group sites.
In addition to Linn and Marion counties, FEMA’s Direct Housing mission is establishing temporary housing for qualified disaster survivors in Jackson and Lincoln counties in sites like the one in Mill City. Housing units are chosen by FEMA based on the survivor family composition and needs, as well as to ensure that requirements for access or functional needs are met.
Currently, 240 qualified families are scheduled to receive FEMA Direct Temporary Housing in the four counties. The current number of qualified families has fallen as many households that qualified for this assistance have located alternate temporary or permanent housing on their own.
Other programs for fire victims such as rental assistance may be available. Apply online at DisasterAssistance.gov, by downloading the FEMA app, or by calling the disaster assistance helpline at 800-621-3362 from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. PDT, seven days a week.
Smoke exposure levels at the Creek Fire ranged from hazardous to unhealthy for 30 days
(From Bill: Wildland firefighters and people who live in areas where long-term fires are common, such as Northern California and the Northwest, know that smoke can persist for days or weeks and can cause or aggravate respiratory and other medical issues. But knowing it exists and having peer reviewed quantifiable data proving it is hazardous to health, are two different things. Science like this could lead to changes that may benefit firefighters and the general public.)
In September and October the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) deployed two staff members to serve as air resource advisors at wildfires in Oregon and California.
Air resource advisors were fully integrated into the wildfire incident management teams to provide insights into understanding and predicting smoke exposure levels. The individuals interacted with stakeholders, including air quality regulators, fire personnel, public health practitioners, and community residents. A primary aspect of this engagement was to forecast smoke levels for areas immediately affected by fires and generate a daily smoke outlook to keep stakeholders informed about prevailing smoke levels. 2020 is the first year during which the CDC worked with the Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program and deployed staff members as air resource advisors for wildfire incidents.
From August 31 to September 14, 2020, one CDC staff member supported wildfires in central Oregon’s Cascade Range east of Sisters, which included the Beachie Creek, Holiday Farm, Lionshead, and Riverside fires. Strong east winds across the Cascade Mountains resulted in more than 560,000 acres of fire growth from September 7 through 10.
Another CDC staff member was deployed to the Creek Fire from September 20 to October 5, 2020. This fire near North Fork, California started September 4 and grew to 193,000 acres during its first week; as of December 3, 2020, the fire had burned 379,895 acres.
During these two deployments, several public health concerns came to light. Of note, although smoke from wildfires drifted long distances and affected downwind communities, the brunt of poor air quality was observed in communities adjacent to wildfire incidents. For example, communities near the fires in California and Oregon experienced high concentrations of PM2.5, as measured by air quality monitors, resulting in “Unhealthy” to “Hazardous” conditions, as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Air Quality Index.
Fire personnel who camped and rested between work shifts at nearby fire camps (North Fork, California and Sisters, Oregon) were also exposed to poor air quality levels. These fire camp exposures contribute to higher overall cumulative smoke exposure and, along with other occupational risk factors such as fatigue and stress, could limit recovery that is much needed for fire personnel while away from the active fire perimeter. In addition, environmental hazards such as extreme heat and higher concentrations of ambient carbon monoxide were prevalent during days with heavy smoke and after extreme fire growth days. These hazards added a layer of complexity to fire response efforts and might have limited fire personnel recovery between work shifts.
From: Navarro K, Vaidyanathan A. — Notes from the Field: Understanding Smoke Exposure in Communities and Fire Camps Affected by Wildfires— California and Oregon, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1873–1875. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6949a4
Linn County requests records about the suppression of the fire
A county in Oregon has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service that is related to the Beachie Creek Fire that burned over 193,000 acres east of Salem, Oregon in September.
The Davis Wright Tremain law firm in Portland submitted a request September 28 on behalf of Linn county, requesting records related to the fire. The request cited the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which requires a federal agency to respond within 20 business days, unless there are “unusual circumstances,” or notify the party of at least the agency’s determination of which of the requested records it will release, which it will withhold.
About 12 percent of the Fire was in Linn County, with the rest in Marion and Clackamas Counties. The Linn-Marion county line is near Highway 22 close to the communities of Lyons, Mill City, Gates, Detroit, and Idanha where many structures were destroyed.
The Forest Service replied to the FOIA in a letter dated the next day, saying (and this is an exact quote):
Please be advised your request is not perfected at this time and we will be reaching out to you to discuss clarification once it has been to thoroughly review.
After not receiving the documents or apparently hearing nothing further from the Forest Service, the attorneys for Linn County filed a lawsuit November 2, 2020 in the U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon.
Below is an excerpt from the complaint:
During its first few days, USFS officials attempted to extinguish the fire, which at that point was 10 to 20 acres, but could not effectively utilize traditional means because the fire was burning on the side of a steep, densely forested mountain…The Beachie Creek Fire thus continued to burn at a relatively small size for days but became a conflagration in early September as conditions became windy and dry, jumping to 200 acres on September 1, 2020, then growing to 500 acres after that. When a windstorm that had been predicted for at least one week prior hit Labor Day night, the Beachie Creek Fire exploded, torching ancient rainforests in the Opal Creek area and roaring down North Santiam Canyon. The fire destroyed the communities of Mill City and Gates, decimated thousands of structures and claimed at least five lives.
The fire was reported August 16, 2020 in the Opal Creek Wilderness about six miles northwest of Detroit Lake in Oregon, about 38 miles east of Salem. According to records in the daily national Incident Management Situation Report and GIS data, the fire was:
–10 acres August 26, 10 days after it was reported;
–23 acres August 31, 15 days after it was reported;
–150 acres September 3, 18 days after it was reported;
–469 acres September 7, 22 days after it was reported; (just before the wind event that began that night).
Forest Service officials told the Statesman Journal it tried to put out the fire during its first few days, and that fire crews dumped “a ton of water” on it. They said they couldn’t safely get firefighters in to extinguish the blaze on the ground, which at that point was 10 to 20 acres, because it was burning on the side of a steep, densely-forested mountain.
“You have deep duff, significant litter and a ladder fuel,” [Rick Stratton, a wildfire expert and analyst] said. “That’s why it doesn’t matter how much water you put on it, it can hold heat. You have to have people on the ground working right there, in an area that elite firefighters turned down twice.”
Firefighters worried about flaming debris coming down the mountain and being unable to escape. Firefighter safety has been emphasized since 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed in an Arizona wildfire.
A fixed wing mapping flight at 8:37 p.m. PDT September 9 found that in about 48 hours the fire had spread 25 miles to the northwest from its point of origin and had burned at that time 310,549 acres.
Many fires started in Oregon around August 16 from lightning that moved through northern Californian into Oregon. Conventional wisdom is that the Beachie Creek Fire was a result of the this storm, although the Forest Service has not officially disclosed the cause. Complicating the issue is the reports that the gale force winds of September 7 and 8 caused multiple power lines to fail, starting additional fires which eventually burned into the Beachie Creek Fire.
This fire and others in Oregon, California, and Colorado were crying out for limited numbers firefighters, engines, helicopters, and air tankers but the fire suppression infrastructure available fell far short of the need. This meant that after the wind subsided, putting the huge blazes out quickly was not possible — without rain. Stopping a fire pushed by very strong winds is not possible, regardless of the air power or ground-based firefighting resources available.
Much of Oregon was also in severe to extreme drought along with Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado. This resulted in the moisture content of the vegetation (or fuel) being low, making it receptive to igniting and burning more quickly and intensely than if conditions were closer to average.
Well over 1,000 structures burned. Some of the communities that were hardest hit included Detroit, Mill City, Santiam River, and Gates.
The information Linn County requested from the Forest Service was about the agency’s policy for managing fires, and the Beachie Creek Fire in particular. Some examples:
Contracts and documents relating to arrangements made with outside contractors for firefighting equipment and training in the Pacific Northwest;
Maps and records depicting all former “owl circles” and all locations of other endangered species habitat in the 2 years immediately preceding the Beachie Creek Fire;
Records declaring the Beachie Creek Fire a Prescribed natural Fire, a Management Ignited Fire or a Wildfire, and all records discussing or relating to that declaration;
Records illustrating the Suppression Response for the Beachie Creek Fire;
Records illustrating the Control Strategy for the Beachie Creek Fire;
Records relating to inputs to and outputs derived from the FLAME computer program or any other predictive computer analysis for the Beachie Creek fire for the period commencing on August 1, 2020, through the date records responsive to this request are provided;
All Social media posts discussing or describing the Beachie Creek Fire;
All current Forest Service Manuals in effect immediately preceding the Beachie Creek Fire and effective throughout the Fire Event.
Below is a description of the fire written by the U.S. Forest Service and posted on InciWeb:
“The Beachie Creek Fire was first detected on August 16, 2020 approximately 2 miles south of Jaw Bones flats in rugged terrain deep in the Opal Creek Wilderness. A Type 3 team was ordered to manage the fire on the day it was detected and implemented a full suppression strategy. A hotshot crew tried to hike to the fire within the first 24 hours. They were unable to safely access and engage the fire due to the remote location, steep terrain, thick vegetation and overhead hazards. Fire managers continued to work on gaining access, developing trails, identify lookout locations, exploring options for access and opening up old road systems. The fire was aggressively attacked with helicopters dropping water. A large closure of the Opal Creek area and recreation sites in the Little North Fork corridor was immediately signed and implemented. The fire remained roughly 20 acres for the first week. On August 23rd, the Willamette National Forest ordered a National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) Team to develop a long-term management strategy. This is a high-caliber team which has capacity to do strategic planning. The fire grew slowly but consistently and was roughly 200 acres by September 1st, fueled by hot and dry conditions.
“At the beginning of September, a Type 2 Incident Management Team (PNW Team 13) assumed command of the fire. The fire size was estimated to be about 500 acres on September 6th. On that day, the National Weather Service placed Northwest Oregon under a critical fire weather warning due to the confluence of high temperatures, low humidity and rare summer easterly winds that were predicted to hit upwards of 35 mph in the Portland area on Labor Day. The unique wind event on September 7th created an extreme environment in which the fire was able to accelerate. The winds were 50-75 miles per hour, and the fire growth rate was about 2.77 acres per second in areas of the Beachie Creek fire. This allowed the fire to reach over 130,000 acres in one night. Evacuation levels in the Santiam Canyon area went directly to level 3, which calls for immediate evacuation. Additionally, PNW Team 13 was managing the Beachie Creek Fire from their Incident Command Post established in the community of Gates. That evening, a new fire start began at the Incident Command Post forcing immediate evacuation of the Team and fire personnel. From the night of September 7th, these fires became collectively known as the Santiam Fire. Ultimately, the Santiam Fire name reverted back to Beachie Creek Fire in order to reduce confusion for the communities in the area. The Incident Command Post was re-established in Salem at Chemeketa Community College. At the end of the wind event, the Lionshead Fire also merged with the Beachie Creek Fire having burned through the Mount Jefferson Wilderness.
“After the night of the wind event, the Beachie Creek Fire was managed under unified command by PNW Team 13 and the Oregon State Fire Marshal and the focus shifted to recovery and preservation of life and property. On September 17th, a Type 1 IMT (SW Team 2) assumed command of the fire. Growth on the fire slowed and the fire reached 190,000 acres. A second Type 1 team (PNW 3) took over command of the Beachie Creek Fire, along with the Riverside Fire to the north, on September 29th. Evacuation levels were lowered or removed as fire activity slowed. At the beginning of October, seasonal fall weather moved over the fire producing several inches of rain. During these weeks, a BAER (Burned Area Emergency Response) team assessed the burned landscape and habitats to try to evaluate damage. On October 8th, PNW Team 8, a Type 2 team took over management of the fire. Focus efforts on the ground shifted from suppression and mop-up to suppression repair. On October 14, the fire was downgraded and transitioned command to local Type 3 Southern Cascades team. The acreage topped out at 193,573 acres. Closures remain in place to keep the public safe from hazards like falling trees and ash pits that can remain hot and smolder for months after the wildfire event.”
(end of excerpt)
The Forest Service is notorious for flagrantly violating the law in regards to the mandatory standards for providing information requested with a FOIA. They have been known to stall for years, or have simply refused to comply. Not every citizen seeking information from their government has a petty cash account with $400 for the filing fee, or the tens of thousands of dollars it could take to pay attorneys for a FOIA lawsuit. Our citizens deserve transparency. However, it also seems unusual to file a lawsuit approximately 26 business days, as Linn County did, after initially submitting the FOIA — just 6 days over the 20-day requirement.
An investigation should determine how much of an effect, if any, fires reportedly started by power lines had on the destruction of private property. It may turn out that some of the structures along the Highway 22 corridor were destroyed by fires sparked by power lines.
If, as appears to be the case, the suppression activity on the fire was less than aggressive for 22 days while it grew to 469 acres, it may have some similarities to the Chimney Tops 2 Fire that burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee from Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2016. After creeping along the ground on a hilltop for five days with no suppression activity except for some helicopter drops one afternoon, the 35-acre fire was pushed by strong winds into the city, causing the deaths of 14 people. Over 130 sustained injuries, and 1,684 structures were damaged or destroyed. Approximately 14,000 residents were forced to evacuate.
Of the three very large fires south of Portland, Oregon the 138,718-acre Lionshead has been the most active in the last 24 hours, with most of the growth occurring on the northeast and southeast sides. Crews continue to secure and protect property and conduct damage assessments as fire activity, smoke, and other hazards allow. Wildfires have not burned in the area for many decades, which has resulted in heavy layers of fuel on the ground that firefighters must work through to construct fireline and mop up, a very laborious and time-consuming process.
Resources assigned to the fire include 51 hand crews, 62 engines, and 10 helicopters for a total of 1,482 personnel.
On the Riverside Fire dozers completed a line around spot fires on the west side to help secure the areas closest to the communities of Estacada and Molalla. On Sunday crews were working on the north side above the North Fork Reservoir, looking at opportunities to move towards the east. Firefighters are using two unmanned aerial systems (UAS, or drones) to assess fire conditions from the air. Helicopters are flying when visibility allows. The blaze has burned 53 structures at last count, and 133,799 acres, and is still a mile away from the Beachie Creek Fire. Resources assigned to the fire include 8 hand crews, 11 engines, and 3 helicopters for a total of 315 personnel.
“You’ll start in the coming days to see some lines showing containment” on the Riverside fire said Alan Sinclair, incident commander for the Type 1 incident management team. “We’re having a little bit more favorable weather and things are coming together.”
Beachie Creek Fire
Fog slowed activity of the fire and firefighters on the 188,374-acre Beachie Creek Fire Sunday. After it dissipated firefighters resumed work on the perimeter and accessing damage to structures. Crews and heavy equipment are tying in the control lines on the west and northwest sides. The Beachie Creek and the Riverside Fires remain about one mile apart. Resources assigned to the fire include 11 hand crews, 45 engines, and 7 helicopters for a total of 563 personnel.
Three Area Command Teams (ACT) were mobilized Thursday to assist local units in suppressing the fires in the western states. One of them, led by Area Commander Joe Stutler, will be coordinating the efforts in northwest Oregon. The other two will be California.
An Area Command Team has been mobilized to assist local units in the state
It could take some time to count all of the structures that have burned in western Oregon. What is known so far about the huge fires that have burned approximately a million acres in the state is the deaths of seven people have been documented according to state officials. Dozens more, they said, are unaccounted for, but many of those could be safe and are having difficulty communicating with friends and relatives.
The number of people that have evacuated has been fluctuating wildly. The Oregonian reported that the state in a news release Thursday night said an “estimated 500,000 Oregonians have been evacuated and that number continues to grow.” The half-million figure received widespread attention, but after an analysis by the newspaper determined that number could not be accurate, Gov. Kate Brown acknowledged Friday the true number to be far lower, about 40,000. She explained that the higher figure included everyone in some category of evacuation, including “Be Set,” and “Be Ready.”
The weather next week is expected to be cooler, with decreasing winds and a slight chance of rain on Tuesday and Thursday. This should slow the spread of the blazes and enable firefighters to shift from evacuations to constructing fireline on the perimeters. Up until now, a very, very small percentage of the edges of the fires have containment line.
Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry, said eight of the large fires “will be on our landscape until the winter rains fall. Those fires represent close to 1 million acres … We will see smoke and we will have firefighters on those fires up until the heavy rains.”
Three Area Command Teams (ACT) were mobilized Thursday to assist local units in suppressing the fires in the western states. One of them, led by Area Commander Joe Stutler, will be coordinating the efforts in northwest Oregon. The other two will be California.
Typically an ACT is used to oversee the management of large incidents or those to which multiple Incident Management Teams have been assigned. They can take some of the workload off the local administrative unit when they have multiple incidents going at the same time. Your typical Forest or Park is not usually staffed to supervise two or more Incident Management Teams fighting fire in their area. An ACT can provide decision support to Multi-Agency Coordination Groups for allocating scarce resources and help mitigate the span of control for the local Agency Administrator. They also ensure that incidents are properly managed, coordinate team transitions, and evaluate Incident Management Teams.