MAPE emergency manager reflects on takeaways from Oregon forest fires

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Mass Care Team

When MAPE member Michelle Lakso got the call to help respond to wildfires in Oregon last month, her focus was not on the long-term lessons and skills she and her agency, MN Dept. of Human Services, would glean from the forests that burned. But now reflecting on her experience as an emergency manager in a natural disaster Minnesota has never experienced, and probably will never experience, she has a new appreciation for the plans and preparedness she and others in her field build long before such disasters rear their ugly heads.

Her deployment to Oregon was specific to mass care – coordinating support for counties and community members affected by wildfires that ravaged more than 4,000 homes near Salem. “Being in Oregon, it was my first experience with wildfires,” Lakso said. ”Surprisingly, Oregon hasn’t had much experience with wildfires either, which is why the call for emergency management assistance came into play.”

While deployed, Lakso witnessed firsthand the success that comes when multiple agencies from different jurisdictions band together for the sake of a community in need.

“The Oregon Department of Human Services(DHS)helped people find shelter in hotels, fed them and called on American Red Cross for help,” she said. “As government, we don’t always get to do that, but our partners do, and that partnership is what really makes a difference.”

Lakso ended up staying at the same hotel where displaced residents were living until their homes were either safe to return to, repaired or replaced.

“I briefly experienced firsthand living in that hotel alongside them, but for many of the residents, this was all they had,” she said. “One had a hearty plant in the window because this is where they were living for now.”

Oregon state government made a task force specific to feeding victims, which localized services for things like food and shelter, yet some communities had no pieces left to pick up.

“Some communities were leveled – no water, no power, no standing homes,” Lakso said. “We had to figure out how to get our arms around where people would go in the time of rebuilding. The government side of help was there. At the same time, it was still a process – with insurance, aid, and so forth.”

While serving out west, Lakso witnessed what she called “the trifecta” coming together to provide the most complete care and services for residents affected by the fires.

“I saw three entities – Oregon DHS, FEMA leading on mass care and Red Cross – all three organizations needing each other,” Lakso said. “The state has responsibilities but not the capability, so each entity needs each other to provide services, assess needs and take care of our communities.”

Lakso said her time helping in Oregon has already provided valuable insight for her agency that she’s presented to colleagues and leadership since returning home to her work, helping prepare Minnesota for whatever may come our way.