Rebuilding lives and communities after Oregon’s wildfires

James Murphy

James Murphy

Vice President

North America

On 7 September 2020, Randall Tinney’s life took a new turn when the devastating Beachie Creek WildFire ripped through 200,000 acres of woodland including the Taylor Park recreation ground in Oregon. Driven by high winds, this inferno destroyed almost everything in the park including thousands of trees, hundreds of camp shelters and RVs (recreational vehicles), the camp office, workshop, grocery store, laundry, and washing facilities.

Randall’s story is just one of many tales of heartache and challenge that faced communities across Oregon following the devastating wildfire season of 2020. Between August and November, more than 20 major fires claimed some 11 lives, destroyed over 5,000 homes, properties and businesses, and laid waste to an estimated one million acres (400,000 ha) of land.

A new approach to disaster management

It was the largest, most expensive disaster in the state’s history. The scale of the environmental and community devastation prompted Oregon’s Departments of Transportation, Environmental Quality and Emergency Management to form the joint Wildfire Debris Management Task Force to accelerate the clean-up.

Our team’s work with multiple Oregon State agencies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to develop the Debris Removal Operations Plan (DROP) has been a game changer in terms of our approach to programme managing this type of difficult and often highly-sensitive work.

Game changing in that we have created, in effect, the playbook to implement and manage work with high numbers of contractors needed at thousands of locations across the region.

Working with Federal, State and local partners, the immediate task was to clear vast quantities of debris, remove hazardous trees and reopen roads in advance of the rebuilding operation that was vital in re-establishing communities, businesses and lives across the state.

The $633m Debris Removal programme ensured ash and debris were cleared as quickly as possible, in line with all the Federal, State and city environmental requirements, but also respecting and protecting the historical, cultural, and tribal resources in the affected areas.

Unprecedented challenges

It was a challenging task, working at all times through the veil of tragedy. The goal was to clean up the fire-damaged land and property so as to allow the next phase of rebuilding to take place. That meant protecting watercourses and ensuring the environment was safe and free from any dangerous materials, hazardous trees or chemical fire and airborne contaminants.

A massive task since COVID-19 was also rampaging through the community. But in a strange way, for all its challenges, the pandemic also brought some benefits to the programme.

Lockdown meant fewer people were out and about on the roads and in the countryside. This allowed contracting teams to de-prioritise traffic control and focus on the vital clear-up work that needed to be done.

But it also allowed the programme to leverage resources from across the country, bringing in resources and labour to accelerate work when needed, and employing thousands of people who had been laid off due to the pandemic.

That said, there was a major impact on the industry supply chain, not least on the ability to deliver resources and materials to sites. That meant a greater emphasis was required on planning ahead – trying to second guess what would be needed.

Communities at the heart of recovery

Working closely with specialist disaster management contractor CDR Maguire, the DROP team was fully mobilised in December 2020. This saw the small team busy reaching out to property owners and communities to seek permission to access land and property while also coordinating closely with utility companies to make safe and reinstate power, water and communications.

Hearts and minds were a critical area of the work. Every pile of ash and charred property represented the lives and memories of individuals and families, or a life spent building a business.

This reality that not every property owner wanted – or was ready – for contractors to clear away their memories had to be respected.

The region is home to a number of indigenous populations for which the landscape and forest play a major part in their culture and lives. All clearance and debris removal had to be carried out in accordance with their wishes and with respect to their beliefs and the wildlife and animals around them.

Sustainable solutions

Technically the work also provided huge challenges – not least due to the geography over which the debris removal teams had to operate. This started with clearing roads and rights of way to provide access – a task that required thousands of hazardous trees to be cleared and removed.

Once access to properties was secured, the teams had to identify and protect critical infrastructure, such as power supplies, water pipes, wells and septic tanks, ahead of the slow often painstaking process of making safe brickwork, removing charred timbers and metalwork and scraping the topsoil of ash and contaminants testing soil samples for toxicity.

The clearance also had to be carried out sustainably – separating materials for recycling and ensuring that the value of any timber or scrap metal could be recovered for owners.

Strict rules around Federal funding meant that the scope of all clearance work had to be tightly controlled to ensure that the debris removal did not stray into the territory of redevelopment work to be funded separately by the State later.

Lessons for a better future

In such a massive game-changing job in which the need to make difficult decisions fast becomes the norm, there are always things that could have been done better with hindsight. Not least the need, right from the start, to get good, accurate information out to communities and property owners early.

That means going beyond a paper flier or text messages and really engaging with people face-to-face using the town hall meetings, the media and personal visits to properties.

The reality is that, after this kind of natural disaster, local people are usually traumatised and highly sensitive to what happens next.

While they may want and appreciate help, they also want to know what the State plans to do before they enter their property with heavy equipment and labour crews to begin debris removal operations.

This realisation has led us to develop a new programme to give local communities the benefit of the lessons learned in Oregon – in the knowledge that sadly, such wildfires will inevitably happen again. But should the worst happen, better-prepared communities will more than likely be able to cope better and be better able to embrace State help when it is offered.

Climate change demands a new approach

This experience in Oregon has been a game changer in terms of helping the business to understand this new area of work, specifically how and where our skills can really help communities. The result sees us now working with other states including Florida and New York helping to programme and plan their emergency management response and enable their communities to be better prepared for the future.

Sadly, the impact of climate change is all too real, a point not lost on communities across Oregon and individuals like Randall Tinney, who now live every day with the physical and emotional scars left by the latest wildfires.

Yet despite the sadness and the trauma of this human and environmental tragedy, there have been positive outcomes as we learn quickly and mindfully from our experiences. We now understand better how we can support and prepare communities for what inevitably lies ahead after a major disaster, and we understand better how we can accelerate their recovery – physically and emotionally - should the unthinkable occur.

For further information contact:

James Murphy

James Murphy
Vice President

t: +1 212 324 8467