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."
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."