The growth of communities into fire-prone areas has coincided with record-setting warming and drying trends in much of the western United States. Large wildfires in 2019 threatened communities and tested fire suppression capability throughout the country, including mutual aid systems. The fire service relies on these mutual aid systems, which allow agencies to share supplies, equipment, personnel, and information across jurisdictional boundaries.
Built upon the state's Emergency Conflagration Act, Oregon's mutual aid system continues to adapt to confront these emerging challenges. When invoked, the act allows the Governor to mobilize any firefighting agency in the state — local, state, or federal, through the Oregon State Fire Marshal (OSFM).
From Wartime to Wildland Fires
Oregon initially created the Conflagration Act as a civil defense measure in the 1940s to prepare for possible aerial firebombing on coastal and Willamette Valley cities. The act was first invoked in 1959 to mobilize firefighting resources statewide, following a fire and explosion destroying much of downtown Roseburg and killing 14 people. The act was not invoked again until 1972 when a Yamhill County fire required mutual aid from around the state to protect communities.
Since the Act's first use in 1972 to respond to a wildland fire, governors have frequently invoked the measure when wildfires threaten structures in Oregon's rapidly growing wildland-urban interface. The Act requires the State Fire Marshal to prepare plans to respond to emergencies. Through that legislation, the OSFM created the Oregon Fire Service Mobilization Plan in the mid-1990s to aid the Oregon fire service in standardizing and bolstering response capabilities. The plan strengthens mutual aid locally and during the initial attack, within Oregon and nationally with other states.
The plan divides the state into Fire Defense Districts, each having an elected Fire Defense Board Chief with responsibilities for local organization and statewide response. Fire Defense Board Chiefs serve as the primary contacts to mobilize resources from their districts when the Emergency Conflagration Act is invoked.
For more than a decade, the OSFM has administered a committee of structural fire service partners to refine the plan as needs change for local communities and state response. Through the OSFM's inclusive approach, the plan is reviewed and adopted annually by consensus from all Fire Defense Districts.
The plan outlines local mutual aid, response authorities, reimbursement and billing processes, and standards in equipment and training to prepare mobilizations in Oregon during conflagrations and to other states through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact.
Healthy Mutual Aid
A healthy mutual aid system relies upon the fire service's entire statewide network to keep fires small when feasible and respond appropriately when necessary—also, having the OSFM as the administrator allows the state to support the system through established processes, assistance with local mutual aid plans, exercises, and training. As fires have changed, so too does the fire service, and it is essential to continue to evaluate response models and new technologies to ensure the system maintains relevancy. This year, Oregon Governor Kate Brown created the Council on Wildfire Response to examine the state's current model for prevention, preparedness, and response. The stakeholders convened are considering ways to improve the state's response system, including through mutual aid.
A healthy mutual aid system is dependent on many components, starting with having a system of governance such as what OSFM provides through the Oregon Emergency Conflagration Act. Local fire service response and mutual aid agreements set the foundation for ensuring districts are staffed, trained, and prepared to respond effectively, both in-district and statewide. Oregon's mutual aid system is anchored in the Act as well as local plans, which serve as a stepping stone to the statewide response. As the mobilization plan sees more use, the system gets stronger. Where the fire service once struggled to mobilize 10 task forces in the state, we can now receive commitments and approvals for 15 task forces within an hour. At its peak, the Oregon Fire Service demonstrates the ability to mobilize approximately 24 task forces at one time. It has the ability to use the plan to bring in resources from surrounding states. The fire service's commitment to the Oregon system continues to bolster and improve the system and sets us in a path for growth for Oregon's future needs.
Rudy Owens is the Public Affairs Specialist for the Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal (OSFM).