Jim Walker is out as Oregon state fire marshal and the No. 2 of the office, Mariana Ruiz-Temple, is now serving as the acting state fire marshal.
The Oregon State Fire Marshal operates under the umbrella of the Oregon State Police, which sent out a brief press release Saturday, Sept. 12, notifying the public about the change in leadership at one of the state’s most critical agencies during this wildfire crisis.
The news release stated Walker handed in his resignation, and OSP Superintendent Travis Hampton accepted it. There was nothing about what led to the abrupt change.
The Oregonian/Oregon Live subsequently reported Hampton lost confidence in Walker’s ability to do the job, and Ruiz-Temple already was handling the day-to-day operation of the office. A follow-up report Monday stated Walker resigned under investigation for entering an active wildfire zone without authorization. Apparently even the boss of the agency in charge of protecting Oregonians, their property and the environment from fire and hazardous materials needs permission from on-site commanders to enter wildfire zones.
That may be part of the reason Walker is out, but there are other facets to look at here.
What went down with the Oregon department of employment earlier this year may have made this kind of change in state department head easier. Gov. Kate Brown in May asked for the resignation of Kay Erickson, the head of Oregon’s Employment Department, which was dealing with a major backlog of unprocessed unemployment claims and thus delaying unemployment checks to Oregonians.
No one could have foreseen all the consequences that have fallen from the coronavirus pandemic, but Oregonians deserved better than what was happening in the state employment department. That also applies in this wildfire crisis.
Walker’s voice was absent in news stories chronicling the fires and the ruin they were creating. Maybe he could have answers questions about why some communities received little if any notice about evacuations, even in these wildfires.
He also was quiet when law enforcement last week denounced the spread of rumors that radical groups started these wildfires. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office took to Facebook to ask people to stop spreading the rumors. The FBI in Portland reported it and state and local agencies investigated several reports that extremists were responsible for setting wildfires in Oregon, and in each case they were untrue.
The state fire marshal reposted the FBI’s statement on social media, but Walker himself made no statement to the press or public about this, and in his position he should have.
Walker’s action in a wildfire zone may have been enough to demand he step down, but the broader picture raises plenty of questions. We’re hoping Oregon State Police Superintendent Hampton removes speculation about what really happened and issues some clear statements or provides documentation to the press and public.