Fire board reflects on shutoff

Benny Westcott

At its Sept. 20 meeting, the Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District Board of Directors discussed the public safety power shutoffs that kept parts of the city in the dark for close to 20 hours.

The outage impacted more than 5,000 customers in the area (12,000-plus total in Linn County) as Pacific Power and Consumers Power Inc. sought to thwart fire danger from east winds and low humidity forecast for that weekend in the Oregon Cascades.

“For us it was a great exercise,” Fire Chief Nick Tyler said. “It was really great to have all of the city leaders [at the Emergency Operations Center] and managing that east-wind event. It was a great exercise to get everyone in the room and figure some problem solving out.”

He called the threat serious, adding, “A lot of community members didn’t see the wind blowing and trees falling down and stuff like that, but when we had the high temperatures and low humidities that east wind brings, for us the fire danger was real.”

Tyler considered the shutoff a lesson learned from the 2020 fire season, one of the most devastating in the state’s history, resulting in more than 1 million lost acres of land and 11 deaths.

The worst came that September, when east winds merged the already raging Beachie Creek, Lionshead and P-515 conflagrations into the 400,000-acre-plus Santiam Fire that tore through parts of Linn, Jefferson, Marion and Clackamas counties.

More than 1,500 structures were destroyed and five people were killed. The small towns of Mill City, Lyons and Idanha were devastated while Detroit and Gates were almost wiped off the map.

“In 2020, I was one of the battalion chiefs running around asking for the power to be shut down, as we were chasing fire all over the place,” he said. “I know Pacific Power was kind-of taking a beating, so I thought it was good to come alongside them. I think they did a good job.”

Board President Dawn Mitchell agreed. “They stepped up huge,” she said, “with the tent city, cooling station and all of that kind of stuff.”

“People were very nervous,” Battalion Chief Shannon Pettner said. “I think we had nine burn complaints and a couple of odor investigations. So that increased our call volume.”

Tyler and Sweet Home Police Captain Jason Ogden recorded a video on Sept. 9 to provide citizens with information about the event’s potential. Both agencies posted it on their Facebook pages to abundant response.

“I think that’s what the community needed,” Mitchell said. “I was getting a lot of PTSD calls about ‘OK, what are we going to do? What happens with this?’ The tensions really ratcheted up quickly, because everyone still hasn’t quite unwound from 2020.”

“I really appreciated all the advanced communications,” board member Rob Younger told Tyler. “That was excellent. I think those little things are very beneficial for the community, just to alleviate any concerns or anxieties they might have.

“I really like it when you and the police department pair up and work together in our community, showing people that we’re unified and it’s all going to be OK.”