Ignited by a faulty transmission line in November 2018, the Camp Fire destroyed 95% of the structures in the town of Paradise. The scenes of destruction that impacted so many lives in the northern California community were difficult to take in.

Although significant rainfall has soaked Oregon for much of this spring, drought is expected to again impact much of the Pacific Northwest this summer. Projections for the potential of wildfire remain above normal.

“Can this happen to our community? If it happened in the ‘Camp Fire’ with Paradise or even here in Oregon with a tiny town getting wiped out … is there anything that we can do to prevent that from happening? And if so, what?”

Those are the words of Capt. Rich Saalsaa of Philomath Fire & Rescue. He will be among a group of panelists participating in a “Wildfire Preparedness Town Hall” on Thursday, June 23, at Philomath High School.

“I think people will receive a lot of information from various points of view of authorities in the area,” City Councilor David Low said. “We have seven panelists and each of them represents either an agency or city or some sort of point of view in relation to fire and wildfires, specifically.”

The city of Philomath is sponsoring the event and organizers hope community members will take advantage of the opportunity to get questions answered from the panel, which includes the following:

• Rich Saalsaa, captain, fire and life safety officer, Philomath Fire & Rescue.

• Bryan Lee, emergency manager, Benton County Sheriff’s Office. 

• Sierra Anderson, emergency management planner, Benton County Sheriff’s Office. 

• Leo Williamson, Protection Unit forester, Oregon Department of Forestry, Philomath Unit.

• Kim Webster, Wren Emergency Planning Committee chair.

• Carrie Berger, fire program manager, College of Forestry, Oregon State University.

• Chelsea Starner, Philomath assistant city manager.

Mayor Chas Jones will open the event with a brief welcome and Rep. David Gomberg, who is on a House committee on wildfire recovery, plans to be in attendance.

Each panelist brings its own brand of expertise to the discussion from the fire department’s knowledge on urban interface to the OSU College of Forestry’s tips on planting fire-resistant shrubs to the sheriff’s office’s information on an evacuation.

“It’s kind of getting all of these different approaches together in one place and kinda let it unfold,” Saalsaa said.

Low believes the town hall has a lot of information to offer all types of residents.

“I think even folks that are in an area that isn’t so wooded or treed will find a lot of information that’s good and relevant to them,” Low said.

Saalsaa said he’s seen some interest from locals about what they can do to better prepare for the possibility of wildfire.

“I can tell you from my own personal experience, from the fire department perspective, I’ve had probably a good dozen folks in the community — particularly the surrounding community but even some in the city — that have come out to take a look at what they can do to make their properties safer if it comes down to having wildfire in the area,” he said.

The region has experienced a wet spring to perhaps delay the beginning of wildfire season but the danger does not go away.

“It doesn’t take much at all between the drop in humidity and the up with the wind, which is very prominent here, to dry things out very quickly,” Saalsaa said. “Wait until mid-August because we don’t know when that next heat wave — like they just had in California and Arizona and Texas — when that’s going to hit here. It’s not if, it’s when.”

The town hall will be the first for the city since May 2019 when a panel discussed the long-term outlook of the city’s water supply.

“The big question for me is are we going to really get a meaningful turnout,” Low said. “This is a little abstract for a lot of people, it doesn’t push them on a daily basis but we hope to do a lot of education and awareness and just help people appreciate the dangers and how their behavior would affect the potential of fire out there,” Low said. “And if a person is affected by it, what resources do they have.”

Low has seen somewhat of a positive reaction from an information booth that was set up at a block party earlier this month to businesses and organizations helping spread the word about the event.

Low hopes the town hall will simply bring awareness and understanding about wildfire preparedness to the community. For those who can’t make it to the town hall, it will be available through the city’s YouTube channel to watch live or anytime thereafter.

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.