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Utah Task Force One looking for victims and survivors of Oregon’s wildfires

This photo taken by Talent, Ore., resident Kevin Jantzer shows the destruction of his hometown as wildfires ravaged the central Oregon town near Medford late Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. (Kevin Jantzer via AP)

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah — A Utah based search and rescue team, Utah Task Force One, is performing important work in Oregon: sifting through the debris of burned out buildings to look for survivors and victims of wildfires. 

Wade Russell, with the Salt Lake Urban Search and Rescue, or Utah Task Force One, said 80 personnel left from West Valley City on Saturday morning to head to Medford, Oregon, most of them from the Salt Lake area.  

“We have four K-9 teams that are with us, so that’s four dogs and four handlers. We also have two physicians from local emergency rooms and two structural engineers that are private individuals that work with us,” Russell stated.

Not the only teams from Utah

Wade Mathews, public information officer for Utah Division of Emergency Management, said the Urban Search and Rescue Task Force One is a federal designation. 

“Earlier in August they actually were sent to the Gulf Coast to help with the hurricane response there, but they were turned around halfway as they were no longer needed,” Mathews said. 

“But, with our EMAC deployments, we also name those groups task forces as well.  So, we have two deployments out right now — the first deployment consists of Task Force One and Task Force Two in California and the other has Task Forces Three and Four in Oregon,” Mathews said.

EMAC stands for “Emergency Management Assistance Compact.” It allows governors to request help from neighboring states during any kind of disaster or state of emergency. 

Shortly after arriving in California for that state’s wildfires, the government re-deployed Utah Task Force One to Oregon after a second EMAC request came from Oregon’s governor.

So, Task Force One, Three and Four are all Utah firefighters working to put out the massive fires in Oregon which have killed at least 10 people, displaced tens of thousands of others and burned nearly a million acres in seven days.

Utah Task Force One: a different job

Russell said his Utah Task Force One has the job of looking for survivors and victims of the wildfires. 

“We’re doing structural evaluations, we have a survey that we go through,” Russell said. “We see if those structures are completely damaged before we send the dogs out.”

“Up to this point, it looks like the evacuations in the areas that we are working have been very successful. So even though we’re doing a lot of work we have not encountered any any survivors, or victims, that we’ve had to pull out of any rubble,”  Russell continued.

PHOENIX, OR – SEPTEMBER 10: In this aerial view from a drone, homes destroyed by fire are shown on September 10, 2020 in Phoenix, Oregon. Hundreds of homes in the town have been lost due to wildfire. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Russell doesn’t know if any of the other search and rescue teams have found anyone.  He said they mostly work in their own assigned areas. And it’s very long hours, said Russell.

“We’re ready and start working at 8:00 a.m. and we come off of the work area at seven o’clock at night.  But the team is up as early as about 5:15 in the morning so we can start our briefings,” Russell said. 

Mathews agrees it’s hard work, but said it’s important.

“Utah is glad to be able to help these other states out and in their time of serious need, as we’ve seen with the the destruction that’s taking place.  So, the Emergency Management Assistance Conpact (EMAC) is a great way to do that,” Mathews said.