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‘Haven’t made it back home yet’: Report analyzes 2020 Labor Day fires as residents move on

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – It’s been nearly three years since the devastating Labor Day wildfires ripped through 20 Oregon counties, displacing thousands and burning nearly a million acres.

On Thursday, the Oregon Department of Emergency Management released a new report analyzing the joint response and recovery efforts. 

Deputy Director Stan Thomas said it was the first time the department fully activated Oregon’s Disaster Recovery Plan.

“We activated it on the largest disaster recovery operation in Oregon’s modern history. So, it was tested, it was tested very, very hard,” he said. “And we had a lot of lessons and we’ve identified a lot of gaps."

According to the report, the disaster recovery plan “lacked adequate detail and depth to provide clarity on roles and responsibilities for state agencies…which led to confusion and periodic misdirection of resources."

The report also highlights a lack of adequate disaster-specific resources and training. Thomas told KOIN 6 that “equity and inclusion” was another area in need of improvement, especially as rural, undocumented and underserved communities continue to face gaps in recovery services.

"We could have and should have done better with equity to make sure we were helping the whole community that was impacted by the disasters,” he said.

One of those impacted is Rachelle McMaster. KOIN 6 first met her in 2021 – one year after she and her family lost everything in the Echo Mountain Complex fire.

"I was speechless. There was absolutely nothing,” she said. “I walked into where my house had stood and I just stood there and stared.”

McMaster is one of the 17 plaintiffs to successfully sue PacifiCorp for damages related to the Labor Day fires, though three years later, she and her family are still recovering from the damage.

"Technically we’re still displaced,” she said. “We actually haven’t made it back home yet."

McMaster said it took her family nearly two years to get into their temporary apartment, but she considered them lucky. Many of her old neighbors are still living without stable housing.

As a rural resident, she believes the state could have done a better job reaching and assisting underserved communities. She said she hopes they use the findings to improve communication overall.

"When we were evacuating, we didn’t see hardly anyone out there telling us what was going on. We literally relied on word of mouth,” McMaster said. “And then I think as far as moving forward, we need housing."

  • Workers continue to repair the power system after flames from the Beachie Creek Fire burned through Fishermen’s Bend Recreation Site in Mill City, Oregon on September 13, 2020. (Photo by ROB SCHUMACHER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
  • TOPSHOT – The melted sign of the Oak Park Motel destroyed by the flames of the Beachie Creek Fire is seen in Gates, east of Salem, Oregon on September 13, 2020. – The wildfire caused the evacuation of 40,000 residents, killing four people and five are still missing (Photo by Rob SCHUMACHER / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ROB SCHUMACHER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
  • Kristopher Smith holds his dog Tripp outside his tent at an evacuation center at the Milwaukie-Portland Elks Lodge, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Oak Grove, Ore. Smith evacuated from Molalla, Oregon which was threatened by the Riverside Fire. (AP Photo/John Locher)
  • A bike path on OR-22 east of Salem to Detriot, Sept. 15, 2020. (Oregon Office of Emergency Management)
  • Cows are grazing surrounded by thick smoke from wildfires near Oregon City, Oregon September 12, 2020. – US officials girded today for the possibility of mass fatalities from raging wildfires up and down the West Coast, as evacuees recounted the pain of leaving everything behind in the face of fast-moving flames. Dense smog from US wildfires that have burnt nearly five million acres and killed 27 people smothered the West Coast on September 12. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
  • A truck flying the American flag and carrying motorcycles leaves an evacuated area in Estacada, Oregon September 12, 2020. – US officials girded today for the possibility of mass fatalities from raging wildfires up and down the West Coast, as evacuees recounted the pain of leaving everything behind in the face of fast-moving flames. Dense smog from US wildfires that have burnt nearly five million acres and killed 27 people smothered the West Coast on September 12. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
  • FILE – In this Sept. 11, 2020 file photo a trike stands near the burnt remains of a building destroyed by a wildfire near the Lake Detroit Market in Detroit, Ore. The blaze was one of multiple fires that burned across the state last month. Three Pacific Northwest law firms have filed a class action lawsuit against Pacific Power and its parent company, Portland-based PacifiCorp, alleging that the power company failed to shut down its power lines despite a historic wind event and extremely dangerous wildfire conditions. (Mark Ylen/Albany Democrat-Herald via AP, File)
  • A camp host at Fishermen’s Bend Recreation Site recovered his charred name plaque after flames from the Beachie Creek Fire destroyed his cabin in Mill City, Oregon on September 13, 2020. – The wildfire caused the evacuation of 40,000 residents, killing four people and five are still missing (Photo by Rob SCHUMACHER / POOL / AFP)
  • The aftermath of the Beachie Creek Fire in Detroit, Oregon, Sept. 15, 2020. (KOIN)

She told KOIN 6 she hopes the state also applies the findings of the report so that other residents don’t endure what she went through.

"They know what they need to do now to prevent such loss and catastrophic destruction,” she said.

Fortunately, that’s a goal shared with emergency management officials.

"That disaster recovery plan was built in theory…but we don’t have theory anymore. We have real experience,” Thomas said. “And that’s where we’re going to go and build a new disaster recovery plan that hopefully can deliver services and provide to Oregonians more effectively and more efficiently than we were in 2020."

Source: KOIN.com

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