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Emergency Management Director On Challenges Oregon Is Facing In Dealing With Fires


In Oregon today, wildfires continue to burn. They're primarily up and down the western part of the state, from Ashland in the south to just outside Portland in the north. The fires are not continuous, but scattered, with many in hard-to-reach areas. This is the largest series of fires Oregon has had to contend with in recent history. The state says they engulf more than a million acres, with very little containment. Oregon's Director of Emergency Management Andrew Phelps joins us now.

Andrew, thanks for making time for us.

ANDREW PHELPS: Thank you, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: The mayor of Portland has declared a state of emergency. I've read that the fires are approaching Portland's suburbs. We're talking about the largest city in Oregon. What threat does this fire pose to Portland?

PHELPS: Well, it's certainly burning into the wildland urban interface that surrounds Portland. We've got most of Clackamas County, which borders on Portland, under at least a Level 1, in many cases Level 2 or Level 3 evacuation notices. And that's the entire Clackamas County, which has a population of over 400,000 people. So it's knocking on the doorstep. But I've got to say, the firefighters have been nothing short of heroic in difficult, dangerous conditions to try to keep the fire from progressing into that wildland urban interface.

PFEIFFER: It sounds like firefighting staff and equipment is just beyond maxed out. Are you at the point you're able to actively fight the fire outside Portland? Or at this point is it just about getting people out of the fire's way?

PHELPS: Yeah. So the firefighters are really taking a strategy of defending that urban interface. Weather conditions have improved greatly over the last 12 to 24 hours, which is allowing firefighters to be a little bit more active on those fire lines and try to keep that fire from spreading into the more densely populated residential areas.

PFEIFFER: President Trump signed Oregon's requested state of emergency designation. What help does the state need from the federal government, and are you getting that help yet?

PHELPS: We are. I need to say, our FEMA partners, especially out of FEMA Region 10 and at the headquarters level, have been tremendously supportive. In advance of our declaration approval, they sent an incident management assistance team and began leaning forward many other resources. Yesterday afternoon, we received 15 tractor trailers with meals, water, cots, blankets into a staging area here in Salem, Ore., to be distributed to mass care sites throughout the state.

In addition, we're working with FEMA on requests for search, rescue and recovery resources, as well as some resources that quite frankly, as an emergency manager, I'd never wanted to request, like mortuary assistance teams and things of that nature.

PFEIFFER: Oh, wow. You're really having to prepare for that possibility?

PHELPS: It's unfortunately an inevitability I think at this point, given the destruction that we've had and what our firefighters are reporting that they've seen. We know we're going to have fatalities. Some of them have already been confirmed.

PFEIFFER: There are false rumors circulating that Antifa is setting fires. And some residents we hear are refusing to leave their homes because they're worried about Antifa violence. How are those rumors affecting public safety officials' ability to do their jobs?

PHELPS: Well, right now, aside from the firefighting and the life safety missions, ensuring the protection of those communities that have been evacuated are of utmost importance to us. We've got the Oregon State Police as well as local law enforcement and the Oregon National Guard doing traffic control checkpoints and patrols through neighborhoods to keep those homes that have been evacuated safe. Law enforcement across the board has come out and said on the fires that they suspect may be human-caused, nothing is pointing to Antifa or those types of associations as being the cause of any of those human-caused fires.

So, you know, in any disaster, the rumor mill runs rampant. And one of the things we're trying to do is control a variety of rumors in terms of where the fires are going and things like what may have caused some of these fires. Each fire is going to be investigated, and reports will be released on the cause of all of those fires.

PFEIFFER: What compounds the fear and tragedy of this for people in Oregon is that it's happening in a pandemic. How are you trying to keep people safe from the fires without them getting COVID-19, if you could answer that in maybe 15 seconds?

PHELPS: Yeah. We've relied on non-congregant sheltering as best we can. Most folks that have been sheltered have been able to be placed in hotels and motels. But this is going to be a challenge as long as this firefight and rescue mission continues.

PFEIFFER: That's Oregon Director of Emergency Management Andrew Phelps.

Thank you again for taking time to talk with us.

PHELPS: Thank you, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.