WASHINGTON, D.C.— Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, along with U.S. Representatives Peter DeFazio, Earl Blumenauer, Greg Walden, Kurt Schrader and Suzanne Bonamici, today pushed the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and the Interior to immediately make urgently needed fire crew chiefs available to assist in the deployment of National Guard service members in Oregon to fight raging wildfires.
“Given the severity and speed at which fires are spreading across the state, we must respond swiftly. Fortunately, the National Guard is prepared to train and deploy additional units, but only once they have the crew chiefs needed. We thank you in advance for your assistance in meeting this crisis by providing the additional fire crew chiefs needed to deploy our National Guard members and contain these wildfires,” the lawmakers wrote to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt.
The fires, which exploded after extreme wind conditions on September 7, have forced 500,000 Oregonians under level one, two or three evacuation orders. It is unclear when it will be safe for the 40,000 Oregonians who have evacuated their homes and communities for safety will be able to return—leaving many wondering about the status of their missing loved ones, homes, and belongings.
Earlier this week, Governor Kate Brown announced her intention to train two additional teams of National Guard service members for deployment to fight the wildfires. When the National Guard Bureau initially indicated that it could not provide the financial resources necessary for the additional training, Senator Merkley intervened and prompted the National Guard Bureau to find additional resources within the training program to allow two firefighting teams to be trained and deployed. Securing the crew chiefs is now the final major obstacle remaining in getting these additional crews deployed.
The full text of the lawmakers’ letter is available here and follows below.
September 12, 2020
The Honorable Sonny Perdue The Honorable David Bernhardt
Secretary of Agriculture Secretary
U.S. Department of Agriculture U.S. Department of the Interior
1400 Independence Avenue, S.W. 1849 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20250 Washington, D.C. 20240
Dear Secretary Perdue and Secretary Bernhardt:
We are urgently requesting that any available fire crew chiefs be deployed to Oregon in order to utilize the National Guard teams standing ready to fight the state’s catastrophic wildfires. We currently have 375 members of the Oregon National Guard ready to be deployed, with another 250 members coming on-line within the next 7 to 10 days. Without further deployment of crew chiefs to Oregon, however, these vital resources will remain sidelined when they are needed the most.
Oregon is facing its worst drought in nearly 30 years, which has resulted in some of the driest forest conditions on record. On the afternoon of September 7, 2020, a windstorm, with winds up to 50 mph and gusts of 60 mph, moved into the region from the east. These winds, mixed with dry fuel loads, exploded existing fires and caught many communities by surprise. Since then, half a million Oregonians – ten percent of the state’s entire population – have been placed under a level one, two, or three evacuation order. At least four lives have been lost and hundreds of homes and most of at least two towns have been destroyed. Most of the state’s population is living in a fog of noxious smoke.
Over the past several days, the state has been focusing its resources on saving lives and protecting property. Fortunately, recent changes in weather patterns have allowed the state to finally start containing some fires while maintaining its focus on defending life and property. For context, in recent years an average of about 500,000 acres have burned each year during the entire fire season, so current firefighting resources are clearly not adequate.
Given the severity and speed at which fires are spreading across the state, we must respond swiftly. Fortunately, the National Guard is prepared to train and deploy additional units, but only once they have the crew chiefs needed. We thank you in advance for your assistance in meeting this crisis by providing the additional fire crew chiefs needed to deploy our National Guard members and contain these wildfires.