Disaster preparedness and public safety rose to the top of Western state lawmakers’ minds after two earthquakes shook a relatively unprepared southern California earlier this month. But in Oregon, researchers were shocked to find that $12 million to expand the state’s earthquake and fire warning systems was shelved amidst the chaos of the Republican walkout in June.
Wildfire preparedness is increasingly a priority of state governments along the West Coast, where summers are increasingly hotter, drier, and prone to larger and more frequent fires.
The Milepost 97 fire, located near Canyonville in southern Oregon, has grown to over 12,000 in a single week, threatening homes, businesses and even Interstate 5. Further south in Ashland, clouds of smoke from these fires cover the entire city, a hazard now becoming an annual occurrence which poses serious health risks, especially for children and those with preexisting respiratory conditions.
AlertWildfire and ShakeAlert are systems driven by groups of cameras and sensors that detect early warning signs for fires and earthquakes, and send out warning messages to the public. Oregon is still in the initial stages of developing these systems, and researchers like Douglas Toomey, a seismologist and earth sciences professor at the University of Oregon, believe the systems need significantly more state investment before they are viable. Toomey described Oregon as “woefully unprepared.”
Governor Kate Brown told reporters that the withdrawal of funding for the early warning systems was one of the “biggest disappointments” of the most recent legislative session, one already riddled with disappointing moments for Brown’s party.
Legislators who were at the table, like Senate Ways & Means co-chair Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, have not directly addressed why funding for these systems was withdrawn. Sen. Steiner Hayward’s chief of staff simply said that it was one of many projects not to receive funding this year.
Toomey said he doesn’t understand why an investment that could have created jobs, attracted matching funds from the federal government, and above all saved lives, wasn’t prioritized.
“It feels like the state is demoting public safety,” Toomey said. “There are lives at stake here.”
By Ian MacRonald