‘Are We Ready?’ Part III — Future threats to The Grove

In recent months, residents have contended with a 100-year snowstorm, flooding and fires. What do they tell us about our area’s readiness in the event of a major disaster?

Editor’s Note: This is the final instalment in a three-part special series, which began Aug. 7, looking at the state of emergency preparedness in the Cottage Grove area, identify possible future threats and examine solutions.

When it comes to emergency planning, no one has a crystal ball.

“It’s a never-ending process,” said Cottage Grove City Manager Richard Meyers. “If we think we’re going to prepare for every possible situation, we’re kidding ourselves.”

In enduring the natural disasters that swept Cottage Grove this year, many found that they were personally unprepared for a survival situation while government agencies retrospectively attested that there was room for improvement.

As this year gave area residents a taste of how uncompromising nature can be, future threats undoubtedly linger on the horizon and the way in which we ought to prepare is not, for each case, immediately obvious.

It’s also important to note that disasters have no obligation to occur at our personal convenience, adding an extra dice roll to potential scenarios.

“Any of these incidents could occur at any time,” said Meyers. “They’re not going to occur when everybody’s at home watching TV all together. Somebody’s going to be at basketball practice. Somebody’s going to be having a hamburger at a restaurant. Somebody else is going to be on the road going home. That’s when it’s going to happen. And how are you going to get back together?”

Planning for the most likely disaster events would appear a reasonable approach and, for many preparedness strategies, there is some crossover. 

The American Red Cross, for instance, suggests that households keep two food and water survival kits: one three-day kit for evacuations and one two-week supply for a lengthy home stay. Whether it be a snowstorm, fire or earthquake, a stock of certain basic supplies will always ensure at least a modicum of impact mitigation.

Beyond that, interconnectedness with one’s community can be an invaluable resource in itself, easing the burden of self-reliance. Community response teams, amateur radio operation or even just being acquainted with a neighbor are all useful tools in emergency planning.

Weaving into this fabric of preparedness the knowledge of one’s environment and perception of future threats, a truly resilient community may emerge.

As a community embracing both urban and rural identities, the Cottage Grove area presents its own brand of emergency preparedness challenges. For those leaning more rurally, the annual threat of fire has hung particularly heavy in the last several years.

Taking the Heat

Alex Rahmlow is the fire planning coordinator with the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Western Lane District. Rahmlow has seen a steady increase of wildfires in the area, but he doesn’t think Cottage Grove’s surrounding communities have it the worst.

“We look better than Medford,” he said, “and we look worse than Portland.”

Fire severity and frequency depend on a myriad of factors. Weather, fuel accumulation and population density are some of the heavier influencers.

“If you look at the last 10 years, we’ve had record-breaking fire seasons in and around Cottage Grove,” he said. “Oregon as a state — it’s been record-breaking in both cost and acres burned. But then you take this year, for example, and we’re right back to normal or a little bit below average.”

In a January article in the journal Forest Ecology and Management, researchers established that high severity wildfires have been on the rise in the region.

“Both the frequency and size of large wildfires have increased in the past 30 years in the western U.S., as has the length of the fire season,” it reads.

As climate change provides conditions for the growth of more biomass and fuel due to wetter winters and springs, the drying of those fuels is enhanced by summertime droughts. The article cites estimates that half of observed trends in wildfires are due to such climate change.

This year to date, the Oregon Department of Forestry reports that there have been 666 fires in the state, 516 of which were human-caused and 150 caused by lightning strikes.

“Cottage Grove is kind of right on that transition of coast to cascades,” said Rahmlow. “And cascades typically get a lot of the lightning. So that’s where a lot of our natural starts come from.”

The human hand in the rise of fire events, however, is undeniable.

“There’s a direct correlation to the number of people that are living in the wildland and the amount of starts that you have,” Rahmlow said. “So, the higher recreation or higher density of people living out there, in and around forests, you’re going to have more starts.”

With the steadily increasing human population showing no signs of slowing down, people may have to get used to the idea of being vigilantly fire-conscious. Fortunately, there are things people can do to prepare.

“Wildfires are one of those few natural disasters that you can actually drastically reduce the impact of with proper planning and preparation,” said Rahmlow.

One way the average citizen can reduce risk to their own home is with a “defensible space” strategy. As the severity of a fire is largely dependent on available fuel, manipulating the arrangement of that fuel can reduce the likelihood of a severe fire event.

“If you can separate the canopy from the ground, then you’ve effectively reduced the potential severity of a fire in that area,” Rahmlow said.

This means pruning tree limbs to eight feet and keeping ground vegetation short in order to create a vertical separation between fuel sources. Likewise, thinning out crowded trees by spacing conifers about eight feet apart can break up the horizontal continuity.

Rahmlow also recommends a defensible space of at least 30 feet around a home.

“Your 30-foot space should be lean, clean and green, so 30 feet around your home is essentially a no-burn area,” he said. “Defensible space usually goes up to 150 feet.”

California’s Camp Fire in 2018 was the deadliest and most destructive in the state’s history, leveling the town of Paradise.

“Part of the issue was … you have houses that are built next to each other that are within that initial fuel break,” said Rahmlow, creating what he called “a forest of homes.”

California passed a landmark building code in 2008 requiring fire safeguards for homes, which included 100 feet of defensible space. According to The Sacramento Bee, “about 51 percent of the 350 single-family homes built after 2008 in the path of the Camp Fire were undamaged.”

With the prospect of more frequent and intense fires in the future, making defensible space could be in homeowners’ best interests, even if not required by the State of Oregon’s building code.

Rural residents may have other options as well. As mentioned previously in this series, Dorena residents Dan Holt and Cal Swanson have taken it upon themselves to provide fire safeguards to the area with the purchase of their own fire engines.

While finding volunteers to be on call for emergency responses is its own challenge, perhaps the hardest will be keeping the volunteers trained on how to operate the vehicles, pumps and hoses.

“If I haven’t seen someone in six months, they won’t remember how to do it,” said Swanson. “You need a cadre of volunteers that practice occasionally.”

On top of training and gathering the manpower, an additional catch is liability.

“That’s the challenge, is if you form a fire district or a fire department, all this equipment has to be certified,” said Swanson.

Because they have no plan to start their own district, Holt and Swanson cannot provide insurance to volunteers — any emergency response would have to be done at a volunteer’s own risk.

Swanson, who spent 20 years in the Navy, was trained to fight shipboard fires and, although acknowledging the equipment differed, “I feel like I know how to handle a hose,” he said.

Legal recourse from others is a thorny issue as well.

“I would rely on the Good Samaritan Law of, ‘I was rendering aid,’” said Swanson.

Though Oregon does indeed have Good Samaritan Law under ORS 30.800, the statute provides protection for “medically trained persons” and may not protect people from legal liability resulting from a victim’s injury if the aid provider is rendering care outside of their level of training.

Despite these hurdles, some Dorena residents have expressed comfort in knowing that neighbors may be able to come to their rescue should the situation arise.

Issues like this, though, are not always on county or state agency radar.

To address this, Lane County is currently conducting a survey of residents’ perceptions of wildfire risk for its Community Wildfire Protection Plan. Not only will the survey provide agencies a sense of where to focus, but an updated plan may allow the county to receive federal funds to reduce wildfire risk.

Residents can take the survey by visiting www.lanecounty.org/fireplan. 

At Fault

Just as people in the Pacific Northwest are becoming accustomed to more wildfires, another impending disaster rests invariably in the back of their minds: Cascadia.

Millions of people live with the knowledge that, any day, civilization as they know it could potentially be turned upside down when the plates along the Cascadia Subduction Zone unleash their bottled-up energy.

The subduction zone is a 620-mile-long fault line that stretches from Canada’s northern Vancouver Island to Cape Mendocino in California. As the Juan de Fuca Plate gradually slips under the much larger North American Plate and loses its ability to store mechanical stress, a devastating release of that energy has the potential to shake the region with a magnitude 9 earthquake.

According to geologists at Oregon State University (OSU), there have been at least 41 major (magnitude 8 or greater) quakes along the Cascadia Subduction Zone in the past 10,000 years, making the average interval between the events 244 years.

Intervals differ depending on the fault segment, however. A 2016 analysis done with the help of researchers at OSU found a section of the zone in Oregon from Newport to Astoria to rupture an average of once every 350 years. The last documented major earthquake along the subduction zone was 319 years ago on January 26, 1700.

“There’s no question that we’re due for another megaquake,” said Steve Robinson, president of Cascadia Prepared. “We know it’s coming. The science is clear on that. We also know that we’re not ready.”

Cascadia Prepared is a Eugene-based nonprofit that has been working to increase personal, business and infrastructure readiness for the past three years.

“If the quake happened tomorrow, it would very likely be the worst natural disaster ever to hit North America,” said Robinson.

By most state and federal estimates, thousands of Oregonians would likely die as a direct result of the quake and even more along the coastline as it is inundated with sea water. Total economic losses are estimated by the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission (OSSPAC) to be around $32 billion.

A 13-year study from OSU concluded in 2012 that there is a 40 percent chance of a major earthquake in the Coos Bay region during the next 50 years. The earthquake may approach the intensity of the Tohoku quake that devastated Japan in March of 2011.

Robinson puts that number higher, citing an increased frequency of earthquakes in the past 5,000 or so years.

“I think based on those statistics that we have a 50 percent chance of a quake in the next 20 years,” he said.

While Robinson said he supports individual and community resilience efforts, Cascadia Prepared’s primary focus is mitigating the effects of a major earthquake by enhancing critical infrastructure lifelines.

“Our electrical systems, our transportation systems, our liquid fuel delivery, our communications, our water and wastewater – all those things are likely to be destroyed,” he said. “We need to get to the point where we can get those systems back up in a couple weeks. But instead of a couple of weeks, we’re looking at six months or a year.”

In a 2013 resilience plan, OSSPAC stated that this infrastructure failure would likely cause most businesses to move or fail if services could not be restored within a month, causing decades of economic decline.

“You can be as resilient as you want personally, but if the electrical system isn’t restored for a year or six months, most of the people are going to have to move someplace else because there won’t be any jobs,” Robinson said.

Despite the grim forecast, Robinson is trying to paint the scenario optimistically.

“We have a motto at Cascadia Prepared: ‘We built it and we can fix it,’” he said. “It’s not rocket science. It’s basically developing the will, the collaboration and support that’s needed to make the investment in shoring up our infrastructure.”

The nonprofit has developed “lifeline resilience teams” which have begun working with entities tied to major infrastructure points to establish risks specific to each area and develop readiness plans. Robinson recommends that cities have a comprehensive analysis of their infrastructure vulnerabilities.

“The ones that are the most important are the ones that, if they go down, make it impossible to fix the others,” he said.

The geography of Cottage Grove poses a unique challenge in this regard. The Coast Fork Willamette River meanders through the city, threatening to cut people west of the river off should the bridges fall. In a Cascadia earthquake event, the city’s water system will surely break.

With this in mind, the city is courting the idea of establishing new reservoirs. Currently, Cottage Grove maintains two reservoirs — and one is likely not seismically sound. The city needs redundancies.

Public Works and Development Director Faye Stewart thinks more reservoirs would be a great asset to mitigating an earthquake event.

“And it doesn’t have to be the 9,” he said, referring to earthquake magnitude. “If we’re hit with a 4, a 5 or a 6, we may suffer some pretty serious damage here. And being able to have water in multiple locations can help buy us time until we get infrastructure fixed.”

Construction on one new reservoir may start on Sunrise Ridge as soon as this fall or next spring. Another two are early in the planning stage.

“Down the road, I envision seeing three new reservoirs in this community,” said Stewart. “Two of them on the west side of the river and we’ll still use the two existing ones, but we’ll have a third one on the east side.”

The redundancy of watersources will not only speed up the process of returning water to the whole city if water pipes break, but may also prove to greatly increase the chances that the city has the water supply to fight heavy fires.

Whatever the challenges ahead for Cottage Grove, vigilance will play a central role in overcoming them. Meyers worries about that vigilance waning.

“I’m afraid of nothing happening,” said Meyers. “Because if nothing happens, we get lax. And complacent. And we don’t prepare. That’s the most fearful thing.”

Lane County officials, too, recognize the value in attentively evolving with each disaster cycle.

“We’ll never be ready,” said county Emergency Manager Patence Winningham. “Every event makes us stronger as a jurisdiction. We always have lessons learned and we always identify areas of improvement and we try to improve upon them. And those continue to make us more resilient.”


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