PHOENIX, Ore. — Niria Alicia was visiting Eugene, Oregon, on Labor Day, several hours north of her family home in the Rogue Valley, when her phone chirped with an alert warning of high winds expected in the state. But the next day, when those winds blew a firestorm through her neighborhood, her phone stayed silent.
Alicia, 28, and thousands of others in the path of the Almeda fire on Sept. 8 had no clear direction from authorities on how and when to flee. As the fire raced across Jackson County, local officials declined to activate their Emergency Alert System, leaving television and radio programs uninterrupted and sending emergency alerts only to residents who had signed up for an online notification system.
The patchwork of official notices fed confusion for those who lived and worked in the fire’s path, including older residents who are distrustful of government or technology, or both, and immigrants who speak little or no English. Many residents said that they had had to search for information on social media and that not all of what they had found was accurate.
As they begin a review of their response to the fires, emergency officials are starting with the hard truth that America’s far-reaching advancements in connectivity have most likely saved lives during wildfires — but only if local governments choose to use them.
Problems with notifications have plagued wildfire evacuations across the West in recent years, often with deadly consequences. Few Californians received alerts about the rapid spread of the Camp fire, which leveled the city of Paradise and surrounding areas in 2018 and became the deadliest fire in the state’s modern history. Officials also held off in issuing alerts to Butte County, California, residents this month as the Bear fire approached, and the messages they did send out did not always prompt people to evacuate.
Having heard no official order to move out of the Almeda fire’s path, Alicia’s father refused to leave his home in the southern Oregon community of Phoenix, which was among the areas hit hardest during this month’s fires. Instead, he watered the walls of his home with a hose as flames approached.
Alicia was helping evacuate her mother, who lives in nearby Talent, but she struggled to find clear guidance from local officials on where to go. Instead, Alicia and many of her friends turned to a broadcast on YouTube, where a stranger, thousands of miles away, was listening to police scanners in fire-stricken areas and suggesting paths for residents to escape.
“I looked at the fires, and I couldn’t find any information about what was going on,” Alicia said. “There was no breaking news. There were no alerts. So I just had this gut feeling: We have to go.”
Communities across Oregon are still trying to assess the damage from the fires that killed nine people statewide — three of them in Jackson County — and destroyed nearly 4,000 homes and other structures. State and local officials are facing pointed questions about their inconsistent deployment of emergency alerts urging the evacuation of areas that were engulfed with breathtaking speed.
The federal government’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System allows local officials to send emergency alerts over broadcast stations and, if they choose, to nearly all mobile phone users in a certain geographic area. About 7 in 10 Americans live in areas where they are able to receive alerts through that system. But even in areas where it is available, not all counties are using it during emergencies.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a review of the warning system, published in February, that some local officials had expressed concerns about their ability to target alerts to specific geographic areas, “which caused some to lack confidence in the system or not use it at all.”
In Oregon this month, some jurisdictions — like Linn County, which includes some of the communities burned by the Beachie Creek fire along the North Santiam River — activated the Emergency Alert System.
But even that did not reach everyone. Several residents who lost homes to that fire said in interviews that they had gone to bed feeling safe from the fire but had awakened to an imminent threat. The mayor of one town, Mill City, described going door to door to tell some residents, including an older woman, to evacuate. Linn County sheriff’s deputies did the same in nearby towns like Lyons and Gates.
Instead of activating its emergency broadcast alerts, Jackson County chose to rely on a more narrowly targeted set of notifications that were specific to neighborhoods as they were ordered to evacuate. In order to receive those alerts, residents needed to have signed up for them online in advance. Jackson County officials told reporters that they had feared that a more widespread warning could have caused mass panic and traffic jams that could have jeopardized more lives.
Asked about the deployment of alerts this week, the Jackson County administrator, Danny Jordan, said in an email that county officials were still busy with the fire and recovery efforts and that the county would begin an external review of its response to the Almeda fire.
“We feel it would be premature to comment until a comprehensive review can be made,” Jordan said, “and we have a more broad perspective and all the information on activities that occurred between multiple jurisdictions.”
Oregon law leaves emergency alert decisions up to local governments. State officials have not provided a blueprint for what counties should do when disaster strikes. They are now considering, as part of “a top-to-bottom review of the disaster response,” whether such a blueprint is necessary, said Andrew Phelps, director of the state’s Office of Emergency Management.
“The systems can be very effective when all of the different tools that local emergency managers have to provide alerts and warning are used,” Phelps said in an interview. Asked if Jackson County officials had erred in not activating their Emergency Alert System, he said he would reserve judgment until the state review was complete.
“I think what we’ll see is that technology isn’t always the solution,” he said. “It’s the high-tech, low-tech and no-tech that got people to safety.”
When the Almeda fire broke out in Jackson County on a Tuesday morning, Terrie Martin drove straight for her parents’ farm. Martin lives in the hills above Phoenix and Talent, part of a string of communities along Interstate 5 in the Rogue Valley. Her parents live on 11 acres in Talent on the farm they bought a half-century ago, when they moved up from the San Francisco area.
Martin helped her mother pack a car with china and heirloom quilts. They opened the gates in the hope that the cattle could escape approaching flames. Shortly after leaving, Martin realized that her father was not following as promised, so she slammed her Mini Cooper into reverse on a traffic-packed road and raced backward on the highway shoulder to return to the family farm and retrieve him.
The family made its way to Martin’s home, but as night fell, they worried that they would have to evacuate from there, too. Several family members slept on the floor of the living room, waiting to go if needed, but Martin and her mother sat up all night, watching the glow in the distance and gluing themselves to updates from Martin’s son, a data analyst in Los Angeles who was listening to police scanners on a Facebook Live feed. Martin never received an alert on her phone from the county, but to her relief, the fire did not reach her Ashland home.
In the days that followed, Martin, who is running as a Democrat for Jackson County commissioner in the November election, has led a growing call from residents who are questioning why the county did not use its Emergency Alert System. “I was furious that I had no way to find information,” she said. “They’re just incredibly lucky they only lost three people.”
She has collected stories from other angry residents on social media. A few said they had received some sort of alert from county officials as the fires spread, but dozens of people reported no alerts of any kind.
“We found out about the fire by looking outside,” one woman wrote. Others said their best source of evacuation data had been Facebook. “We just need a plan,” another woman wrote. “We need a better plan.”
Alicia’s father was fortunate: He and his house survived, though the neighborhood across the street from him burned. Alicia said many of her neighbors and members of her extended family had reported no alerts and said that they had been unwilling to evacuate without official word from the government. Even the YouTube stream she watched, which she said had helped her navigate evacuations, was difficult to understand because it was in English, so she had switched to a Facebook stream that was repeating some of its key recommendations in Spanish.
Many residents said they felt lucky to have escaped in the chaos. A dump of flame retardant on adjoining railroad tracks saved Martin’s parents’ farm. All they lost was their family business of 49 years, a Harley-Davidson dealership in Phoenix, which was insured.
Martin walked around the shell of the dealership late last week, inspecting the damage. Six new motorcycles in the showroom were ruined, their engines melted. So were the bikes in the back of the shop that customers had brought in to be serviced.
The family made no attempt to save any of the Harleys. But one of Martin’s relatives did break into the dealership as the flames closed in to recover its most indispensable item: the computer server, which contains the names of all of its customers, their parts orders and their contact information.
At least the dealership would be able to send its customers notifications about the fire, the damage and what comes next.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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