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In California, the Camp Fire complex north of San Francisco has burned 151,373 acres and caused 79 known civilian fatalities as of November 20, 2018. While on assignment to Southern Oregon last summer, the author had the opportunity to speak with Jackson County (Oregon) Sheriff Nathan Sickler, who was facing major fire incidents in Jackson and Josephine counties. He agreed to speak about the sometimes-invisible duties of law enforcement officers during a major fire incident.
“I want to be clear,” Sheriff Sickler begins, “that we are happy to help and serve. I just don’t think that people realize how much we do during a fire.”
Jackson County sits just north of the Oregon-California border. On July 5, 2018, a fire started just south of Hornbrook, California. The Klamathon Fire burned 38,008 acres before it was contained. On July 15, lightning started what would become the Klondike Fire and the Taylor Creek fires in Josephine County, Oregon, the county to the west of Jackson County. Both the Klondike and Taylor Creek fires are still burning at the time of writing in November 2018: Taylor Creek has burned 52,839 acres, and the Klondike Fire has burned 175,258 acres. On August 10, the Air Quality Index (AQI) in Ashland, Oregon, was 218 (very unhealthy) and the temperature topped out at 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
“The [Klamathon] Fire was threatening to burn into residential areas around July 5,” said Sheriff Sickler. “We immediately sent a deputy to interlink with their command post and a lieutenant to oversee operations. Our search-and-rescue volunteers went down there.” When a level 3 evacuation—a mandatory evacuation order—was announced, the responsibilities of the department increased.
“In a level 3 evacuation, we are responsible per statute for notifying residents. Our PIO [public information officer] turned into an almost full-time fire information officer. Also, whenever there is a level 3 closure, we have to ensure that the area is as safe as reasonable. We have to post personnel at checkpoints to make sure that people aren’t looting the [evacuated] properties. That means that we’re staffing 24/7 for the duration of the level 3 evacuation.” Staffing became strained as the savage weather made the fire difficult to contain.
“In a level 2 evacuation, which is the ‘pack your things and be ready to leave’ level, we generally have to send officers door to door to make sure that everyone gets the message. We take our duty to notify very seriously. Naturally that takes deputies off of the roads.” Jackson County is largely rural, so door-to-door notifications are a serious investment of time and labor.
“We had to employ resources from most of our municipalities to cover overtime at the checkpoints. We didn’t want to do an emergency schedule because you never know how long the crisis will last. My PIO attended daily briefings for fire mapping and information. As sheriff I attended all the public meetings. I want to stress that this is part of the job and I’m not complaining, but it strains our resources.”
On July 21, Oregon Governor Kate Brown declared the southern Oregon fires a conflagration, which allowed for the mobilization of the National Guard. “The National Guard were extremely helpful,” the sheriff reported, “but they are unarmed and have no law enforcement authority. Last summer, we could have had 30 more deputies and it would have been okay.” The county is eligible to have some of its expenses reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but with the increasing frequency of major fires, Sheriff Sickler is concerned that there are insufficient resources for local law enforcement agencies to support the firefighting efforts.
“I would love for certain funding to be earmarked for law enforcement in case of a fire. We wouldn’t even necessarily need new funding, just for existing funding to be expanded to include fire management.”
Sarah Estill, Social Science Analyst
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