Five-Alarm Call: Making the decision to keep working or shut down amid wildfires

A wildfire blazing in a forest | Shutterstock / My Photo Buddy
Shutterstock / My Photo Buddy
Published On
May 13, 2022

In August 2020, lightning sparked unprecedented wildfires in parts of western Oregon. Fanned by dry winds from the east, the fires skipped over roads and natural fire breaks, spreading hundreds of miles on flying embers.

“Around Sept. 6, I started getting calls from people in Eugene, where the smoke was bad first,” said Mark Hopkins, safety manager for Cherry City Electric, Salem, Ore. “People were calling me saying, ‘Hey, we’re getting lots of smoke here, what should we do?’”

Cherry City is a division of Morrow-Meadows Corp., which operates a 2,000-strong workforce and four regional offices on the West Coast. Cherry City and Morrow-Meadows are proponents of safety, experience and training.

The callers certainly reached out to the right person. Hopkins had been a fire warden in western Oregon, worked in the logging industry, served as an air traffic controller in the Navy and earned a safety engineering degree from Oregon State University. He is adept at handling emergency scenarios and comfortable taking charge.

Hopkins and Brad Caldwell, corporate safety director for Morrow-Meadows, spent much of their time in 2020 monitoring wildfires in Oregon, California and Washington. Their efforts entailed assimilating updates from employees and those supplied by a variety of news, state, county, local and federal agencies.

“It’s called situational awareness,” Hopkins said. “You can’t operate in an emergency without it.”

Up and down the West Coast, the fires’ expanding footprints were deeply concerning. So was the corresponding deterioration of air quality.

“The benefit for people now is having the internet,” Hopkins said. “Now, you can open Google Maps and see where the fires are, where road closures are.”

Local police and fire departments also issued emergency evacuation alerts to mobile phones. Newer, localized methods of alerting the public have been in place in Oregon and California for some time, Hopkins said. But a primary source of information the men paid close attention to was AirNow.gov, which lists Air Quality Index (AQI) numbers reflecting particulate matter in the atmosphere. The higher the AQI, the worse the air quality.

Realizing certain areas were registering AQIs over 150—a level that makes breathing difficult for people with health conditions—Cherry City closed 15 of its 40 work sites. The decision came after intense communications with managers and foremen through Microsoft Teams, which enabled Hopkins to discuss and share online resources, helpful visuals and public information updates.

Cherry City’s work site closures included an infrastructure upgrade in the Oregon state capitol building, a car dealership, library, hospital, surgery center, a new building at Portland State University, market district project in Eugene, performing arts center in Beaverton, a couple of hotels and several outdoor service jobs.

Shutting down proved a good call. In some locations, air quality worsened, with AQIs spiking between 500 and 1,000, Hopkins said.

“At 500, you better not show up for work outdoors, or I’ll be fitting you with a respirator,” he said,

All of the Cherry City shutdowns were either outdoor sites or buildings “not skinned in,” Hopkins said.

Cherry City employees continued working at enclosed sites with HVAC systems. Due to the pandemic, some of those systems had been recently upgraded with more efficient energy-transfer systems that could easily filter and recirculate the air. Others were fitted with high-efficiency particulate air filters.

The same held true for Cherry City sites in Washington.

By Sept. 11, 2020, raging walls of flame engulfed huge portions of western Oregon. Some fires, including the Lionshead and Beachie Creek fires, merged and began creating their own weather, advancing as much as 20 miles per day toward Eugene and Salem, Hopkins said. One 80-mile-wide swath began marching toward Portland.

“It wasn’t until the fires started getting closer to Portland that you really started seeing anything on the news here,” Hopkins said. (Hopkins works out of Salem.)

Besides monitoring news and online government postings, Hopkins started plotting addresses of employees.

“It became apparent. Some people were going to lose their homes,” he said.

Satellite images showed massive smoke plumes sprouting from thin red lines. The fires eventually consumed entire towns in Oregon’s remote regions. One Cherry City employee lost a home in the weekend-getaway town of Detroit, Ore., but no employees lost their lives, Hopkins said.

In all, 11 Oregonians died from the 2020 wildfires, which by Sept. 22 had burned 1 million acres, or 1,562 square miles.

Morrow-Meadows didn’t find it necessary to close work sites in California, but the wildfires of 2020 killed 33 Californians and decimated more than four times the area of Oregon’s fires—4.25 million acres.

Still, even by California standards, Oregon’s fires were alarming. Fires also burned 773,000 acres in Washington. Overall, the West Coast wildfires of 2020 were more massive than any recorded for the region.

In all three states, the skies turned a menacing beige and lurid orange, forced car headlights on in the middle of the day, brought business to a halt and kept thousands indoors.

“We have wildfires every year in Oregon. The difference in 2020 was they produced a lot of smoke that blew into major cities.” Hopkins said. “You choked just making your way from your house to your car. Everybody was coughing. You just couldn’t be outdoors.”

Smoke emitted by Oregon wildfires in 2020 turned the daytime sky orange and brown. | Mark Hopkins, Cherry City Electric
Smoke emitted by Oregon wildfires in 2020 turned the daytime sky orange and brown. | Mark Hopkins, Cherry City Electric

Besides igniting an up-close-and-personal awareness of climate change, the wildfires also have sparked stringent state protections.

Oregon OSHA claims its new wildfire protections for workers, expected to be codified in 2022, would be the strictest in the nation. The safety provisions, delivered in tandem with heat protections, are not so different than those adopted by California in 2019.

Those regulations came on the heels of California’s 2018 wildfires, which forced Morrow-Meadows to shut down work sites in the San Francisco area. To keep employees safe during those fires, Caldwell looked to OSHA respiratory protections and temporary guidelines suggested by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which were later signed into state law.

Likewise in 2020 for Cherry City Electric, Hopkins and Caldwell looked to U.S. OSHA and considered the temporary guidelines suggested by Oregon OSHA. Those guidelines came to serve as the basis for the state’s proposed (as of press time) new wildfire protections for workers.

Both states appear to have looked to OSHA 1919.134, Respiratory Protection, which suggests permissible practices and protective equipment necessary to prevent workers from breathing health-threatening dusts, fogs, fumes, mists, gases, smokes and vapors.

California and Oregon requirements

Both states require employers to do the following:

  • Provide annual training and information to employees who may be exposed to wildfire smoke
  • Develop a system for communicating possible smoke hazards before exposure occurs
  • Use engineering or administrative controls to reduce employee exposure to air quality indices of more than 101 for Oregon and 151 for California. Administrative controls include moving work to another location or adjusting work schedules. Engineering controls pertain to enclosed buildings and vehicles in which air can be adequately filtered.
  • When the AQI reaches 151 for Oregon and 251 for California, employers must provide filtering facepiece respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), commonly known as N95 masks, to employees for voluntary use.
  • When the AQI reaches 251 for Oregon and 501 for California, employers must ensure employees wear NIOSH-approved respirators.
  • For respirators used exclusively for wildfire smoke, Oregon employers may implement the state’s Wildlife Smoke Respiratory Protection Program in place of conducting fit-testing under OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard.

That last point refers to OSHA allowing discretion regarding local enforcement of fit-testing due to PPE shortages resulting from the pandemic. However, stricter enforcement could still resume.

Hopkins and Caldwell know wildfire smoke causes permanent damage to lungs and immune system functions, as affirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. For that reason, prior to any state wildfire regulations, they followed OSHA guidelines for offering employees respiratory protection and made certain that masks and respirators fit properly to prevent harmful exposure. Their fit-testing entailed making sure employees could breathe properly while wearing protective equipment and carrying out normal work activities.

Before any state regulations, Hopkins and Caldwell consistently looked to OSHA and drew from their years of safety experience. In responding to the Oregon fires of 2020, they said they also did plenty of “soul-searching,” “researching” and “best-guessing.”

Measuring success

Their success in keeping employees safe, they said, required “a willingness to gather and analyze as much information as quickly as possible,” “being highly motivated to protect employees,” “communicating quickly to foremen and project managers” and “carefully weighing the risks of continuing work against the costs of emergency downtime.”

Hopkins isn’t keen on more state regulations, which he says pose an initial administrative burden, but he’s willing to adapt. Caldwell is too.

“In a constantly changing world, sometimes you have to learn as you go, and you just have to do your best because you won’t always know exactly what to do,” Caldwell said.

Whether they keep going or shut down, employers must always consider employee welfare, as well as lost money and time. For shutting down, they must also consider the reality of having to push employees once the emergency has passed to make up for lost time.

“It’s a tough call,” Caldwell said.

“But don’t be afraid to make it,” Hopkins said. “We’re blessed with a company that exercises prudence. We want to protect people and keep them safe.”

“We want to keep everybody working, and to keep jobs going for our customers,” Caldwell said. “But without healthy employees, we can’t do either of those things.”

About the Author
Susan DeGrane

Susan DeGrane

Susan DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has covered electrical contracting, renewable energy, senior living and other industries with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and trade publications. Reach her at sdegra...

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