ODF staff cooperate in investigating fires in state forests and other protected lands. Fire investigation is completed by appropriately trained ODF district employees. The division works to recover fire suppression costs whenever a responsible party is willful, malicious or negligent in the fire origin or, if reasonable effort is required, fails to make every reasonable effort to control and extinguish a fire.
Recovering suppression costs from responsible parties helps reduce the burden on the state’s General Fund and on forest landowners who pay assessments for fire protection from ODF.
2020 Labor Day Fires
Starting Labor Day 2020, the Oregon Department of Forestry was required to suppress several major wildfires that burned over a million acres from Southwest Oregon up to Northwest Oregon. The department is required to investigate every fire that happens on ODF-protected lands and therefore oversees investigating the roughly 17 large incidents that resulted from this one event.
In addition to the 2020 Labor Day Fires investigations, ODF had pre-existing fire investigations when the September 2020 wildfires started and has continued to suppress and investigate new fires that started in 2021, 2022 and 2023. On top of new fires, all of this happened during the COVID-19 pandemic which contributed to delays of certain investigative actions.
ODF cannot divulge the particulars of its ongoing investigations. However, they are complicated and have involved cause and origin scene work, large numbers of witness interviews, collection and examination of potential physical evidence, review of extensive documentation and utilization of experts. Some of ODF’s investigative efforts have been hampered by a lack of access to potential witnesses and evidence.
ODF’s investigation does more than simply determine the location and cause of a wildfire. It is also designed to determine whether someone is liable for ODF’s fire suppression costs. This second step (cost recovery) can contribute to the time that it takes to complete the investigation.
In the end, the Oregon Department of Forestry understands the impact that these investigations have on the public, and that is why the department is working so hard to make sure that this process is done right. Protecting the integrity of the investigation and any potential litigation is essential to for the department to correctly collect costs from any responsible parties. Cost recovery is what takes the economic impact of fire off landowners and taxpayers, so though it is taking a long time, it is with the intent to be responsible with taxpayer dollars.
As these investigations are completed and potential litigation is completed, they will become available to the public and will be posted on this page.
For investigations from 2020 that ODF is not the lead on, please contact the agency responsible for that investigation.