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State report highlights ODOT fire cleanup efforts

The Almeda fire destroyed vehicles along with homes and businesses. [Vickie Aldous/Mail Tribune]

A state report made at the request of the Oregon Department of Transportation highlighted the agency’s work cleaning up thousands of properties and clearing more than 100 miles of road in the aftermath of the 2020 Labor Day fires, the most expensive disaster event in state history.

The Oregon Secretary of State’s office advisory report, titled “ODOT Worked Quickly to Oversee the Largest Wildfire Debris Removal Operation in State History,” delved into the unprecedented efforts of ODOT’s Oregon Debris Management Task Force after the September 2020 fires, which included the Almeda and South Obenchain fires in Jackson County.

The 58-page report, released Oct. 20, drew from state auditors, but is not classified as a government audit, according to a news release from Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan. Instead, auditors focused on five facets of the $622 million cleanup in an explanatory question-and-answer format.

“The report shows that in this extremely difficult crisis, ODOT learned and adapted throughout the cleanup,” Fagan said in the release. “ODOT’s efforts are clearing the way for Oregonians to rebuild their homes, businesses and communities.”

Issuing an advisory report allowed for a quicker turnaround than a government audit, according to the Secretary of State’s office, and the release stated, “This report has undergone the same quality assurance process as audit reports from the Audits Division.”

Four of the five questions in the report focused on ODOT’s tree removal policies and procedures — an issue more acute in central and northern parts of the state with densely wooded areas in the burn scar — but in a fifth section auditors asked, “What mechanisms are in place for evaluating the recovery efforts?”

Auditors determined that the governor’s office completed an “after action review of emergency response efforts,“ but found ”no solidified plan for a state-level review of the recovery effort.“

“However, ODOT intends to hire a consultant to conduct an after-action review on debris removal operations, one part of the state’s recovery efforts,” the report stated.

The report noted that the state’s 2018 Disaster Recovery Plan was never exercised prior to the Labor Day fires, and the state’s 2015 Debris Management Plan only covered basic policy matters, not operations.

“As a result, the state plans contained little about the Disaster Management Task Force, which turned out to be a key group for the recovery effort,” the report stated.

The report highlighted ODOT training plans to make sure a “core group of people” retain knowledge from the wildfires and the ability to train others for recovery work in the future.

Auditors also recommended “precontracting” or having contracts for debris removal services in place ahead of time. It noted that other states have cleanup contracts already in place, which allow cleanup operations to begin as soon as it’s safe to do so.

According to the report, ODOT leaders and stakeholders are already working toward that goal.

“ODOT leadership reported that its procurement team is researching contracts in other states to discuss precontracting later this fall,” the report states.

ODOT management intends to hire consultants to more closely examine protocols for planning debris cleanups — including permitting and clearances — as well as ways to better focus on insurance recovery and FEMA reimbursement.

“The 2020 wildfires provided Oregon an opportunity to better prepare for future disasters,” the report concludes. “ODOT appears to be doing well managing hazardous tree removal operations; nonetheless, this incident was unprecedented in Oregon’s history and the state could learn from the experience to be better prepared.”

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.