Ore. parks and roads director wins state award for unexpected role in fire, pandemic response

At the start of 2020, Jackson County Parks and Roads Director John Vial had no idea his life was about to be taken over with responding to a pandemic and one of the most destructive fires in modern American history.

The COVID-19 virus spread to the West Coast, and Oregon went into lockdown in March, closing schools and many businesses.

The Jackson County Public Health Department, which responds to infectious diseases, was overwhelmed with requests for help. Local health care providers didn’t have enough personal protective equipment such as face masks and gloves to keep themselves and their patients safe.

Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan asked Vial to lend a hand.

“Emergency management is not something I normally do,” Vial said.

The county launched an emergency operations center, with Vial leading the effort.

In recognition of him taking on that additional role, the Oregon Association of County Engineers and Surveyors named Vial the 2020 State of Oregon Road Official of the Year.

“Although John is never one to seek the limelight, he is very deserving of this recognition,” Jordan said. “John has met the challenge of the pandemic and disaster with skill and compassion.”

Vial said employees from throughout Jackson County government have stepped up to help during the pandemic and with the devastating Almeda and South Obenchain fires.

“It’s been a true county effort,” he said. “The most impressive part to me is it’s not just one person. Pretty much every department has contributed.”

Back in the spring, Vial and other staff, including from the roads and parks department and the Jackson County Expo, put out a call for donations of personal protective equipment. Donations poured into The Expo, and the emergency operations center worked to distribute equipment to local health care providers. They also managed incoming shipments from the state.

Working with hotels and organizations that included the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the emergency operations center found rooms where people diagnosed with COVID-19 could stay. OSF, which has housing for visiting actors, has been shuttered all year.

“If someone got sick, instead of going home and infecting their family, they would have somewhere else to stay,” Vial said.

When fires fueled by extreme heat and wind swept through Jackson County in September, the work became even more intense.

The emergency operations center, Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, firefighters, police, paramedics, dispatchers, neighbors and others all joined to battle the fires and evacuate people. The emergency alert system failed to notify residents, making the on-the-ground efforts even more critical.

The Almeda and South Obenchain fires left behind thousands of destroyed homes and businesses.

The Expo became a shelter for people and animals, feeding area, post-fire donation drop-off and pick-up site and firefighter camp. Nonprofit groups and businesses that had been helping with COVID-19 expanded their efforts to aid and help house the thousands of people who lost their homes.

The county’s emergency operations center became the hub to coordinate local efforts with the American Red Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Oregon and other entities responding to the disaster — including massive cleanup operations that are ongoing.

The cities of Medford and Central Point loaned some of their own staff to aid with the recovery. Many workers from fire-devastated Talent and Phoenix continued to show up on the job, even those who had lost their homes.

County staff members who had already been putting in long hours due to COVID-19 redoubled their efforts.

“It’s been a lot of hours. We have staff who have worked 90-100 hour weeks on the fires,” Vial said.

While he’s been assigned to the emergency operations center, Vial said other staff have stepped up to make sure work continues for the county roads and parks system.

Although he’s quick to point out the contributions of others, Vial said he does appreciate getting the state award from the Oregon Association of County Engineers and Surveyors. The association also includes public works directors, road department directors and other infrastructure professionals.

“It is always nice to be recognized by your peers,” Vial said.

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