Utility services to be asked to join committee
By Samantha White
Tom Sharp, Harney County Emergency Preparedness Coordinator, provided an update at the Harney County Court meeting, held Nov. 7. He reported that the county’s current Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan (NHMP) will expire in March 2013.
The NHMP was developed through a regional partnership and funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Pre-Disaster Mitigation Competitive Grant Program. The Southeast Oregon Region grant was awarded to support the development of natural hazard mitigation plans for the region. An example of natural hazard mitigation would be developing plans to prevent forest fires from entering urban areas or improving the levy on the Silvies River to prevent flooding.
Sharp said he observed some “pretty dramatic changes” in the county’s climate over the last two years. He explained that there was a flood last year, and the county is experiencing drought this year. He said updates to the plan will address what can be done to protect local communities prior to natural disasters.
Plan templates and plan development support was facilitated by the Oregon Natural Hazards Workgroup at the University of Oregon. Harney County’s planning process was led by the Project Steering Committee, which was made up of representatives from Harney Electric Cooperative, Harney County, the cities of Burns and Hines, the Burns Paiute Tribe, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the US Forest Service (USFS) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). He added that the existing plan is over 400 pages long.
Sharp explained that the plan must be maintained and updated every five years, or the county could lose federal funding for pre-disaster mitigation projects. He said one of the first steps would be to put together a committee that is similar to the one used in the 2007 – 2008 NHMP planning process, but would like to invite additional representatives to participate.
County Commissioner Dan Nichols asked why the Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative (OTEC) was not part of the previous committee. Sharp replied that he did not know, but said he would like to contact OTEC about joining. Sharp also said he would like to initiate contact with representatives from CenturyLink about joining the committee, as he would like all of the local utility services to be represented. County Commissioner Pete Runnels also suggested that Charter Communications be contacted, stating that television services may be used for public service announcements in the event of an emergency.
Sharp said committee members will work together to update the plan that is already in place, not re-write it.
“The process should take three meetings,” he said,” but we need a writer.”
He explained that someone is needed to write the draft and facilitate the meetings. Sharp said grant money is available to hire someone to fill this position and suggested looking to representatives from Oregon Emergency Management or the University of Oregon to locate candidates, but stated anyone who understands the basic principles of the original plan and who is able to facilitate group meetings would be suitable for the position.
Sharp added that any projects that are still in progress need to be written into the updated plan in order to ensure that their funding is safe and secure.
State Homeland Security Grant
Sharp also reported that the county conditionally received a $10,364 State Homeland Security Grant for the Harney County Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear and Explosive (CBRNE) Incident Response and Mitigation Planning Project. He explained that the grant was conditionally approved partially because $15,000 was applied for, but only $10,364 will be awarded. He said the grant application must be scaled down to work within the scope of the available budget.
Sharp said the grant will provide training and materials needed for higher-level responders from local police and fire departments to address hazmat-related incidents.
“I never envisioned Harney County as having a hazmat team,” Sharp said. “They are very expensive to sustain here,” he added, explaining that the grant would not create a local hazmat team, but give local responders the ability to act as first-responders in hazmat situations.
Sharp explained that hazmat incidents require millions of dollars in specialized training and equipment, and the process for containing hazards is very methodical and time-consuming. He said this does not include travel time for hazmat teams, explaining that the nearest team is located hours away in Ontario, and Hermiston is the home of the only other hazmat team in Eastern Oregon.
“When the hazmat team is in Ontario, we have to add hours for them to get here,” Sharp said, explaining the importance of local first-responders.
“It’s not like [hazmat workers] are deployed everyday,” he said. “You don’t need them until you need them, and then you need them right away.”
He added that there are about six hazmat teams across the state, and all are operated by the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
Streamlining fire protection mobility
Sharp also reported that Harney and Malheur County Emergency Management and their respective County Fire Defense Boards are working together to streamline processes with the State Fire Marshal’s Office for mobilizing state fire protection services. He explained that the process for mobilizing teams is time-consuming, and a more rapid response to fires is needed. He cited the recent Long Draw and Miller Homestead fires as examples.
“We need a more appropriate way to respond,” he said. “Let’s put our trust and decision in locals,” he added, stating that local fire defense boards and fire chiefs should be trusted to mobilize teams.
Nichols added that there has been discussion about planting crops that would act as natural fire breaks.
“I think that this should be a pretty high priority,” he said, adding that landowners need to be contacted in order to obtain permission to plant.
Sharp said, “This is an example of a mitigation project that we want to move on.”
County Planning Director Brandon McMullen said Harney County received a grant from the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development to collaborate with Central and Eastern Oregon counties to develop a framework for a regional approach to sage grouse protection.
“We are developing a tool box or a menu list of options,” McMullen said.
As the grant manager, Harney County will be in charge of researching the issue and collecting data from other counties with sage grouse populations. McMullen said he would like to hire a graduate-level intern to collect and compile the information into a single document. The goal is to create a plan to address this (and possibly future) conservation issues and allow counties to chose whether they want to follow it.
“Each county has a different relationship with the federal government and an intimate relationship with its own land use plans,” McMullen said, explaining why following the plan will be voluntary.
McMullen said he would like to include stake holders from the non-public land perspective in the discussion. He said examples of stakeholders would be private land owners or industries that represent private land owners.
McMullen said the department would like to gather information from other counties and present it to the stakeholders for feedback and recommendations. He said the public will also be given an opportunity to comment, and the plan will be presented to the Sage Grouse Conservation Partnership (SageCon). SageCon is an Oregon Solutions Project made up of the Governor’s Office, the BLM and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). McMullen said he hopes this collaborative effort will bring out questions and help get answers to conservation issues.
Nichols expressed concern that the needs of private land owners might not be heard in the collaborative process because so many parties are involved. He also expressed concern that other counties may not see the point of developing a plan if following through with it is voluntary.
McMullen explained that the counties would not be committed to following through with the plan’s proposed actions, but that they would be committed to working together to develop a possible approach. He said the development of the plan would give counties an opportunity to determine what works best for their local communities.
In other business, the court:
• signed a Bargain and Sale Deed for Tom and Marian Chulos to purchase county-owned land in Crane. The Chulos plan to use the small parcel to shore up their fence lines;
• appointed Richard A. Day to the Housing Authority of Malheur County Board. Runnels said, currently, two of the board’s positions are filled by representatives from Harney County. He said adding a third representative from the county might increase the chances of developing housing opportunities locally. He also mentioned that the board may consider looking into housing opportunities available through small, individual houses, as opposed to large apartment complexes, as there are a lot of small houses for sale locally;
• signed the Allocation Certification Agreement for the Maintenance Assistance Program (MAP) 2012/2013 with the Oregon State Marine Board and the Certificate of Cost Allocation Plan and Certificate of Indirect Costs for the Public Health Department;
• heard a report from Nichols regarding a public meeting with the Oregon Education Investment Board that was held in John Day on Nov. 5 to discuss new education goals for the state. Nichols said, “There was a good representation of Eastern Oregon counties.” He added that many who were in attendance stated that they were “absolutely in support of education, but not the reform suggested by the state.”
• reported that County Judge Steve Grasty will return to work Tuesday, Nov. 13, but will be working half days to start. Grasty is recovering from open heart surgery.