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Mike McInally

Mike McInally

You might recall an editorial of a few weeks ago, in which we lamented the Legislature’s unexpected (and surprising) decision late in the session to strip away funding for an earthquake early-warning system.

As it turns out, it’s worse than that.

That money, which totaled $12 million before it was stripped away, was not only meant to give a boost to the very promising ShakeAlert earthquake system but also to a similar system, AlertWildfire, which is meant to give firefighters critical early information about blazes — information that could allow them to get an upper hand on fires before they get out of control, a distressingly common occurrence during our increasingly lengthy fire seasons.

The end result, as a recent Associated Press story explained, is that Oregon runs the real risk of falling further behind its West Coast neighbors in preparing for natural disasters.

As the AP story noted, AlertWildfire is a system of cameras and other tools stationed in some of the most remote and fire-prone parts of Oregon, Nevada and California. It’s been developed by a consortium of three universities, the University of Oregon, the University of Nevada-Reno and the University of California San Diego.

According to the AlertWildfire website (AlertWildfire.org), the system provides access to state-of-the-art fire cameras and other tools to help firefighters discover and locate ignition sites, determine what level of resources will be required to fight the fire and to monitor fire behavior.

You can see how a system like this could be useful, especially as extended fire seasons force managers to make fast decisions about where to deploy increasingly thin firefighting resources.

And the system appears to have worked well thus far: During the past three fire seasons, AlertWildfire has provided information for more than 600 fires.

So it follows that the system’s scope and effectiveness would be greatly enhanced with more cameras. Which raises the question: How many of these cameras have been installed to date in Oregon? Here’s the answer: three. You can see how this might not be enough to cover all of Oregon’s fire-prone areas.

The state of California, by contrast, is expected to install 200 to 300 new wildfire cameras by October — which should be timely, considering how that state’s most devastating fires recently have started later in the year.

The AlertWildfire story mirrors what’s happened in Oregon to the ShakeAlert system, which detects faster-moving but less destructive energy waves that emerge at the start of an earthquake.

ShakeAlert could give people and automated systems a precious few seconds or even a minute to prepare, depending on how close they are to the epicenter. The system already is in place in Los Angeles.

But for the system to work, it needs at least 75% of its earthquake sensors in place before officials can begin alerting the public through the ShakeAlert app. Oregon still needs to install more than 100 sensors. Some of that $12 million would have paid for sensors. Now, the system must rely on federal funds, and that means Oregon’s ShakeAlert system won’t be online until 2021 at the earliest.

As is not unusual in cases in which legislators fear they’ve made a mistake in judgment, it’s hard to determine exactly what happened to the $12 million in funding. Gov. Kate Brown, who included the money in her budget, said the decision not to fund the systems was among her “biggest disappointments” in the session.

Of course, it’s common for legislators to make last-minute funding decisions based on what they perceive to be the best use of the state’s limited resources.

It would be interesting to learn which projects legislators rated as a higher priority than protecting the state from natural disasters. If lawmakers can’t come up with a satisfactory answer to that question, perhaps they should revisit this funding issue in their next session.