U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio visited Roseburg on Saturday to attend a fire briefing and learn more about the community’s needs related to the Archie Creek Fire. He came away with a to-do list, just like he said he has at every fire briefing he’s attended throughout his district in the past few days.
The Archie Creek Fire is one of several devastating fires burning through large swaths of DeFazio’s Southwest Oregon District. As of Saturday morning, Archie Creek had burned 116,000 acres with 0% containment.
DeFazio said one thing he wants to work on is changing federal rules that would free up additional personal protective equipment for private crews working on the fires.
“We hope we can get that done. Bureaucracy can sometimes be maddening, but I think we’ll get it done,” he said.
Another problem he wants to fix quickly involves 2,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land that had already been prepared for timber harvest before the fire swept through it. He wants to make sure the BLM can salvage that timber quickly.
He’s already been able to address some need in his district. In Lane County, where the Holiday Farm Fire is burning in the McKenzie Valley east of Springfield, communications were down. He was able to convince Verizon to bring in temporary replacements for repeater towers lost to the fire.
He’s also been able to get the U.S. Forest Service chief to share satellite infrared to help firefighters map the Holiday Farm Fire and begin to plan for fire lines.
“Down here, you’re ahead of where we are in Lane County. You’ve got way more fire line in than we do, which is really good news,” said DeFazio, who lives in Springfield.
He said the governor plans to activate the Oregon National Guard to perform mop-up operations, freeing firefighters to return to the active fire sites. He said Douglas County is at the point where it could use that assistance.
Already last week, DeFazio had announced that he and the rest of Oregon’s congressional delegation had been able to obtain an emergency order through the White House that would free up funds for temporary housing and food for evacuees.
The results of that were already apparent at the Douglas County Fairgrounds on Saturday, with few people staying at the Red Cross shelter set up there. Most had already been moved out to motels.
The next step, once the fires are out, is to obtain a major disaster declaration, DeFazio said.
When that’s done, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will send people into the communities to do damage assessments and help property and business owners with their losses.
“We have to do an inventory of the damage — obviously it’s not safe to do that yet — and then apply for funds to help people rebuild their homes, rebuild their businesses and provide significant economic assistance,” DeFazio said. “So that’ll be the next step. Right now, we’re still in the emergency phase. Then we move on to the recovery phase.”
No one knows yet how many structures have been lost, he said.
DeFazio also plans to visit the Oregon Department of Transportation this week to talk about “what their plans are for the winter to keep these roads open, because if we can move people back to their communities, we’re going to have boulders, we’re going to have trees, we’re going to have stuff coming down on the roads and what’s their plan to deal with that?”
He said he can get federal emergency highway aid money to help take care of Highway 138.
He also wants to get a waiver of the state’s 25% match for federal funding of firefighting costs.
“Hopefully we can get that 25% waived because our communities were already devastated because of the loss of revenue under COVID. We really can’t afford to pay 25% of the cost of the firefighting,” he said.
While he’s had plenty to do, the congressman said he still feels “incredibly helpless and frustrated and very, very, very sad.”
He’s sad for the devastating loss of lives and houses and businesses and communities.
“And then beyond that even when we rebuild the communities, what’s the McKenzie Valley going to look like? What’s the North Umpqua going to look like? I mean, these are the most iconic places in Oregon for people who fish and love water and rafting and drift boats,” he said.
“It’s changed for our lifetimes, our kids’ lifetimes. It’ll be generations before it comes back,” he said. “So we can bring back the communities quicker, we can mourn those who’ve lost their lives, but the recovery in terms of what we all know and love about Oregon is going to be way, way long in coming.”