“Future-Proofing Rogue Valley”: Inside the Almeda Task Force

Image taken from Jackson County’s video on September 8th, 2020

The Almeda Drive Fire of 2020, between Talent and Phoenix, left Ashland’s community and broader Jackson County reeling. More than two thousand, eight hundred structures were destroyed. The true financial damage is probably incalculable. These wildfires brought many important questions to the forefront, such as resource management and escalating dangers posed to Southern Oregon by the climate crisis. By July, shortly after the end of Southern University’s spring term, it is probable that the state will be at high risk for wildfire. As temperatures rise and volunteer reservoirs fall, Jackson County, the City of Ashland, and other authorities are taking proactive measures to contain the threat.

One such initiative is being spearheaded by the National Guard’s 186th Infantry Regiment (currently headquartered in Ashland, Oregon, and comprised of three infantry companies and one support company) with the firm Quantum Dynamics, which specializes in unmanned aerial vehicles. Quantum Dynamics is an affiliated company of Timberland Helicopters, splitting off from in 2020. The collaboration– “Task Force Almeda”– is a two day workshop to help prepare the National Guard and other public safety agencies for this year’s wildfire season.

The workshop is a free educational event aimed at making the community’s public services as resilient as possible as we enter wildfire season. Statewide, one million acres were burned in 2020. Substantial parts of Phoenix and Talent weathered permanent damage, which resulted in permanent displacement. The fallout from the Almeda Drive fire remains an albatross on communities in Southern Oregon.

Concerning the Almeda Fire, the damage is ongoing and many unanswered questions remain. From September 8th of 2020 to September 14th, nearly a full week, the fire burned through the heart of Jackson county and ravaged over three thousand acres. More broadly, the dangers posed by the fires both in Jackson County and elsewhere in the state were exacerbated by the COVID-19 Pandemic. High paranoia, internet misinformation, and unusually large numbers of people engaged in outdoor recreation all made the problem worse. Fire risk was higher and the public response was weighed down.

Map of the Almeda Drive Fire

Online rumors about left-wing activists deliberately setting the fires compounded the crisis, which resulted in some residents refusing to evacuate during critical moments– a problem that the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office documented during the fire’s climax in early September. The Almeda Drive fire was worsened by a second blaze, for which one man was charged with arson. The subject remains under active investigation. This digital dimension adds another complication for authorities to navigate, one that’s more pressing than ever as fire danger climbs.

Bolstering the physical capacity to respond to disasters is equally critical and in some senses less difficult to prepare for. That’s the goal of the cooperation between Quantum Dynamics and the National Guard, to leave local authorities with more resources and more training as we approach summer. To this end, the Task Force Almeda workshop will be offering public servants a variety of free training exercises.

Quantum Dynamics’s press release highlights the available services that will be available. Remote Pilot Certificates for Rogue Valley’s National Guard will be provided through an accelerated two day course teaching emergency responders how to use drones. Proficiency with drones can then be applied to a variety of situations responders might encounter, such as advanced aerial firefighting and search rescue. The course will prepare members of the National Guard to take their Commercial FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) Knowledge Exam, which will be offered on the second day.

On Thursday, February 22nd, members of the media were invited to network at the 186th Infantry Regiment’s Armory and receive more information about Task Force Almeda. Present was Fire Chief Jeff Pricher, who delivered a presentation on unmanned aerial vehicles for public safety integration, as well as their regulatory challenges. The Scappoose Rural Fire District Chief has long been an advocate for expanding the use of drones in firefighting and other emergency responses. His presentation focused on strategies for dealing with obstacles from regulations, and how to maximize drone technology’s usefulness.

B Company of the Oregon National Guard (photo by Major Wayne Clyne)

“Adopting UAS technology in our operations enhances our efficiency and effectiveness in safeguarding our communities,” said Pricher in a press release. “This event is a significant step forward in Rogue Valley’s continuous pursuit of innovation and commitment to safe operations in the National Airspace.”

Pricher’s Scappoose Rural Fire District has beyond visual line of sight approval (BVLOS) from the federal government, which gives it a significant new advantage during critical missions, “enhancing operational efficiency and safety”. The District is well equipped for the coming summer, and endowed with just the experience that Southern Oregon’s emergency responders can benefit most from. 

Task Force Almeda is a milestone in cooperation between the public and private sectors. The free exchange of materials and information between Quantum Dynamics, the National Guard, and the Scappoose Rural Fire District leaves the county much better prepared for emergencies as we enter an especially risky time of year.

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