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Operations center staff coordinates shelter, evacuations for weeks as fires rage in Columbia River Gorge

COURTESY MULTNOMAH COUNTY - Staffers from across local and state government set up an emergency operations center in Troutdale to evaculate, shelter and inform members of the public as the fire grew.A raging wildfire spanning tens of thousands of acres presented unusual challenges for the largely urban area of Portland.

Hundreds, if not thousands, have been forced from their homes because of the Eagle Creek Fire in eastern Multnomah County, and an oppressive smoky haze descended upon the region.

But inside the nerve center of the Multnomah County-led emergency operations center, all went well — or as well as they could, under the circumstances. That's because all folks and agencies that should have helped out, did.

"It's going fantastic," says Alice Busch, director of the county's Office of Emergency Management, standing in a conference room at the Troutdale Community Policing Center building of the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office. "We actually have all the people here."

Normally Busch heads a staff of eight. Last Wednesday afternoon, she oversaw a staff of 29, many of them sitting at tables, peering at laptops or talking on cell phones, most of them with large water bottles. In the corner are cases of Coke and granola bars, apples and bananas. The walls are lined with maps and reminders scrawled in Magic Marker.

The center's seeming success despite such an unusual event illustrates how after decades of evolution, the practice of emergency management is supposed to work in Oregon — response centers springing up wherever a disaster or major event strikes, with staff from local agencies showing up to pitch in under the guidelines in which they've all been trained.

The group's job, while a separate team handles the actual firefighting, is to help manage the people affected by the fire, such as by setting up shelters and planning for more evacuations if necessary.

"What we're trying to think is how could this get worse," Busch says, "And what do the people providing support need from us."

At one table, Portland police Sgt. Liani Reyna works the phone. But while she's wearing her city uniform, she's representing law enforcement in general in her current role. She, nor anyone else there, can't be assigned tasks by their employers.

"As soon as they show up, I'm their boss," Busch says.

It hasn't always worked so well. In 2008 and 2009, Multnomah's emergency office was the subject of scathing reports and headlines, with allegations of missing millions. There were horror stories of county Corrections deputies blowing through red lights at high speed during preparedness exercises — in total violation of their training.

But so far, things have worked smoothly as the Eagle Creek fire has grown from a small blaze apparently started by fireworks, to join with other fires, spanning about 34,000 acres as of Monday morning.

Part of the explanation is practice, according to Busch, who worked in a series of firefighting jobs before joining the county emergency unit in 2013. With winter storms and other events, it's been a busy year.

"I spent 22 years in fire, and I feel like I have been busier this year in emergency management than I ever was in the fire department," she says

As the blaze grew over the first weekend, sheriff's Lt. Chad Gaidos was on his way home from a shift at the Multnomah Building in central Portland when he got a call that the evacuations were starting in Warrendale and Dodson. He drove to the Troutdale location as they set up the response center in earnest, and ended up working 20 hours in all.

As a public information officer, his job was to keep the public informed, and they found that Twitter was a great way to do that, their account more than doubling in followers to more than 10,000 in the span of a day.

As county deputies paired up with search and rescue volunteers to knock on every door in the evacuation zones, Portland police officers and Oregon state troopers pitched in. So did Multnomah Animal Control staff and city firefighters.

Meanwhile, for a period of several hours, police officers from the city of Gresham took over responding to police calls in the cities of Troutdale and Fairview, so the deputies' knowledge of the unincorporated county could be put to good use, Gaidos said.

Early on, even with no evacuations under way, sheriff's deputies were on high alert, with three times the normal presence in the evacuated areas to deter looting.

On Wednesday afternoon, Busch feels like for now, at least, things could be worse.

"The fire is definitely not at the levels it was Monday night, Tuesday morning," she says.

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