In mid-July, on a very hot night in 2014, Lane County Sheriff Tom Turner called me—at about 2:30 am—to alert me of an emergency. Wild fires were burning out of control throughout south and east Lane County and spreading into Douglas, Deschutes and Klamath Counties.
State and Federal elite and emergency fire fighters were being airlifted into our area to risk their lives controlling the conflagration. They needed a place to assemble. The place had to be central to the lightning strikes that were causing the fires and had to be accessible to helicopters and large pieces of equipment. Bunking and sanitation facilities were desired.
Such a place existed: it was the mothballed Lane County Forest Work Camp at Alta, located in the Coast Mountains 35 miles southeast of Eugene. The Sheriff was asking for my authority to grant access to the county facility.
Of course I said, “Yes,” and the facility was opened and the suppression and control began. The only problem was: I did not have the authority statutorily to grant the authority to the Sheriff to open the facility. I was in violation of law and potentially subject to penalty.
But under the circumstances, of course I had done the right thing. And maximum resource use happened and the fires were controlled far more quickly than if the camp had remained closed.
Emergencies happen without a plan. In this case all involved parties praised the decision, but I still acted without authority.
We are currently developing an emergency plan that would delineate absolutely the chain of command in authorizing use of county resources and facilities in case of emerging disasters.