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Oregon’s governor on her state’s wildfire crisis and ongoing racial protests

This historic early fire season is devastating in its scope and toll. With fires merging and moving closer to Portland, that city now has the worst air quality of any in the world. Officials say they need twice as many firefighters as they have now. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the crisis as well as her response to months of public outrage over racism and police violence.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This early fire season is historic and devastating in its scope and toll.

    As Cat reported earlier, fires have merged and are moving closer to the Portland suburbs. Portland itself, at this moment, has the worst air quality of any city in the world.

    The state's governor, Kate Brown, joins us now from Portland.

    Governor Brown, thank you very much for joining us.

    To people who have never experienced fires like this, give us a sense of what your state is dealing with.

  • Gov. Kate Brown:

    Well, this has certainly been the perfect firestorm.

    We have unprecedented wind conditions, combined with a 30-year drought on the landscape. And so we have seen devastating wildfires throughout the state. We have had 40,000 Oregonians that have needed to evacuate, 500,000 under some level of evacuation, and our firefighters are doing the best they can.

    But their primary focus right now is to save lives. And so that's where we're focused. That's where our time and energy is focused.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, right now, we understand there are a number of people missing.

  • Gov. Kate Brown:


    As I said, you know, our focus right now is on saving lives. These fires will need to be investigated over the next days and weeks. We are still, obviously, focused on evacuating people out of the most serious of circumstances, and we still have fires. Most of the fires are uncontained.

    We have never seen anything like this in the history of Oregon.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's just unimaginable to so many of us.

    Governor, our reporter Cat Wise was telling us that there are — that the state needs twice as many firefighters on the ground as you have now. Are you going to be able to get that much more support? Where is it going to come from?

  • Gov. Kate Brown:

    That's a great question.

    We are very fortunate that we have 375 National Guards men and women who have been pre-trained to fight fire. Those units will be deploying today, tomorrow and Sunday.

    We are going to be training, thanks to the help of our federal delegation, Senator Merkley and Senator Wyden, an additional 300 National Guards men and women. We have requested assistance from our federal partners. We're hoping for active-duty military, trained battalions from the Department of Defense, trained in firefighting, and hoping that some other states will be able to provide additional National Guard resources.

    But, as you know, this is a challenge facing the entire West Coast, and our firefighters are spread very, very thin. We're working hard to get them more people power and additional resources as quickly as possible.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's why I was asking if you think you're going to be able to get everything that you need.

    Governor, there are, as our reporter Cat Wise was telling us as well, these rumors or conspiracy theories going around about the cause of the fires, leading some people not to heed evacuation orders.

    How much of a problem is that? What's — what's going on?

  • Gov. Kate Brown:

    As the law enforcement community has said and reiterated in social media posts, these rumors are absolutely false.

    We need folks to stay off the 911 lines if they are concerned about these rumors, and we need folks in Oregon to be alert and paying attention to their local county emergency management Web site about what appropriate actions they can take.

    All of these fires will be investigated. I am confident that our law enforcement community, combined with our assistance from our Department of Forestry and our National Guard resources, that you will see thorough investigations of the causes of these fires.

    But, as I said, these are historic and unprecedented. Given where we are on the West Coast, we are likely to see more of them, with the impacts of climate change happening here in the Pacific Northwest.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Governor, we see that the protests that have been ongoing in the city where you are in Portland for months now are continuing even through this state of emergency that's been declared.

    How much of a concern is that?

  • Gov. Kate Brown:

    It's certainly a concern.

    I have worked with our community partners, our business community and elected leadership to craft a statement of Oregon leaders, saying that this violence needs to come to an end.

    We are continuing to have conversations with folks in the community about how we can tackle the underlying racism issues that are really the underlying cause of the situation. And we are continuing to take action.

    The legislature has passed six bills in the last two months addressing police accountability. And I am working to recraft, reenvision how we train law enforcement in this state and how we can co-create a new type of public safety that will ensure that all of our community members feel safe.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, in a sentence, how confident are you that there will be an end to these protests in coming days?

  • Gov. Kate Brown:

    Well, Judy, I — that's a really challenging question.

    Dr. King said it best. Riots are the language of the unheard. So, we know that these protests are caused by folks who have been experiencing systemic racism in this state and in this country for decades, for centuries.

    And it will take time, frankly, to eradicate the racism in our criminal justice system, in our law enforcement system, in our health care system, in our educational system.

    Violence does nothing. It answers nothing. It solves nothing. But I do think that it is a distraction from the critically important work that we need to do to tackle the systemic racism in our institutions, cultures and state.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Governor Kate Brown of Oregon, dealing with a lot right now, to put it mildly, with regard to the fires and, of course, with the ongoing unrest in Portland.

    Governor, thank you very much.

  • Gov. Kate Brown:

    Thank you so much. Be safe.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you.

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