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Report details what went right, wrong during Almeda and Obenchain fires

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Teresa Soderstorm looks for items to salvage from her home destroyed by the Almeda fire in September 2020. Talent and Phoenix residents didn’t get evacuation notifications before the fire engulfed their towns. Jamie Lusch/Mail Tribune
Talent and Phoenix residents didn’t get advance phone warnings

A 50-page examination of the response to the Almeda and South Obenchain fires in Jackson County details what went right and wrong.

Jackson County commissioned the report for an amount not to exceed $43,959 from Innovative Emergency Management, a North Carolina-based disaster and crisis management firm.

The report focuses on a 10-day stretch from Sept. 8, 2020, ― the day both major fires broke out ― to Sept. 17. Two smaller fires erupted in the Central Point area Sept. 8 and 9 but were quickly controlled.

The report praised the rapid response of multiple agencies, the quick setup of a mass evacuation and shelter site at The Expo, the creation of live evacuation maps and the strong pre-existing relationships among agencies.

“Agencies quickly activated and implemented necessary response activities even though the situation was fast-moving and chaotic in its early hours,” the report said.

But among other flaws in the response, the report noted communication breakdowns.

Ashland area residents received Citizen Alert evacuation notices within an hour of the Almeda fire being reported at 11:04 a.m. Sept. 8.

But the fire had already burned along the I-5 corridor and was destroying parts of Talent and Phoenix well before additional evacuation alerts went out after 4 p.m., according to a timeline created by Innovative Emergency Management.

Communication breakdown

The report said getting an accurate, centralized flow of information was challenging, especially given the speed and intensity of the Almeda fire, the number of agencies responding and the need to keep relocating the in-the-field command post as the fire advanced.

The report’s recommendations include more multi-jurisdictional, multi-agency regional planning, training and exercises; integrating the successes that emerged into standard procedures for future emergencies, and fully staffing the county’s emergency management department.

Assessing the actions taken during and after a disaster is critical to making improvements and moving forward, said Krista Houk of Innovative Emergency Management.

The firm interviewed more than 50 people from 29 agencies, including county workers, 911 dispatchers, firefighters, law enforcement and employees from the cities of Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, Medford, Central Point, Butte Falls and Shady Cove.

"We have interviewed many, many people and heard many stories of loss. We've also heard a lot of acts of heroism and a lot of overwhelming commitment by both the county and the jurisdictions to help citizens recover and to improve moving forward," Houk said.

Even before the fires broke out in Jackson County, county workers and local emergency responders knew they faced trouble and were already communicating with each other and the State Fire Marshal’s Office about potential needs, the report said.

A red-flag weather warning for high winds and hot temperatures was in effect, and fires were already burning in other parts of Oregon and the West, meaning firefighters could expect little outside help.

For the future, the report recommended partners like Jackson County, the National Weather Service, fire and law enforcement agencies, mass care partners and cities create a procedure to make sure everyone understands threats and expectations during periods of high risk.

The Almeda fire was reported at 11:04 a.m. Sept. 8 along Almeda Drive in northern Ashland. On-the-ground neighborhood evacuations started at 11:21 a.m.

At that time, Jackson County activated its Emergency Operations Center, which uses the same Central Point building as 911 dispatchers.

A video timeline created by Innovative Emergency Management shows Ashland area residents received Citizen Alert evacuation notices at 11:52 a.m. and 12:05 p.m.

Ashland implemented its emergency operations plan and contacted the Jackson County Emergency Operations Center to request that those alerts go out, Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan said in an interview with the Mail Tribune.

Ashland also sent warnings through a different alert system used by the city, he said.

The video timeline shows no Citizen Alert notices went out to warn Talent residents as the fire reached their town at about noon.

The Almeda fire was already burning in Phoenix when Citizen Alert evacuation notices went out after 4 p.m., the timeline shows.

Buildings are engulfed in flames as the Almeda fire burns through town as shown in a photo by Talent resident Kevin Jantzer shared via the Associated Press.

Jordan said Talent and Phoenix officials didn’t contact the county to ask for Citizen Alert evacuation notices to go out as the fire approached those cities.

In the event of another major, fast-paced disaster, other small cities in the Rogue Valley could lack the staffing to carry out their emergency plans and make sure Citizen Alerts go out, Jordan said.

He said county workers were trying to figure out the situation by listening to chaotic radio messages among firefighters, police and other first responders from a host of city, county and state agencies who were responding to the fire.

“We couldn’t tell exactly where the fire was,” Jordan said.

With traffic moving slowly along escape routes and conflicting, unverified information about the location of the Almeda fire, Jordan said, the county was reluctant to issue a broad evacuation alert on behalf of Talent and Phoenix.

“We can do it, but if we had done that blindly, we could have gridlocked everything,” he said.

The county could have accidentally directed people into a firestorm, Jordan said.

At 4:01 p.m., the county went ahead and issued a generalized Citizen Alert warning people to stay away from the Ashland, Talent and Phoenix areas because of fire. An evacuation alert for the Almeda fire area went out at 4:04 p.m., the timeline shows.

Meanwhile, the South Obenchain fire in northern Jackson County was reported at 1:45 p.m., with the first Citizen Alert evacuation notices going out at 2:56 p.m. and 3:51 p.m., according to the timeline.

Authorities issued 39 Citizen Alerts between Sept. 8-24, with 15 of those issued in the first 48 hours of the fires, the report said.

The September 2020 Almeda fire leveled neighborhoods and manufactured home parks in Phoenix and Talent. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

The report said that after the Almeda fire broke out, Jackson County’s emergency manager had multiple responsibilities, including activating the county’s Emergency Operations Center.

“Multiple people working in the EOC indicated that the Emergency Manager had a significant number of responsibilities in the early moments of the incident and was unable to distribute emergency notifications in the incident’s early stages,” the report said. “This was resolved with the designation of an EOC Incident Commander (IC), allowing the Jackson County Emergency Manager to focus on emergency alerting duties.”

The report said only two people were available with training and access to the Citizen Alert system ― the Jackson County Emergency Manager and the Josephine Emergency Manager.

Many residents said they never received evacuation alerts and escaped only because they were warned by on-the-ground first responders and neighbors, or saw flames approaching.

Part of that was due to Talent and Phoenix not requesting alerts, Jordan said.

Part of the problem also lies in the fact that Citizen Alerts automatically go out to landline telephones, but people must opt into the Citizen Alert system in order to get cellphone, text and email messages.

The more well-known Emergency Alert System issues alerts on television and radio, but those alerts can't be targeted at specific geographic areas. It wasn't used for fear it would trigger massive evacuations that would have further clogged roads, blocking people's ability to flee fires and first responders' ability to get in, according to the report.

During interviews, the report said, "fire and law enforcement officials expressed concern that a broad emergency message across the county with limited details and no way to customize the message for different areas would have resulted in increased chaos and possibly injuries and death. Residents would either evacuate when they were safer sheltering in place, or try to enter fire-affected areas to check on home status or collect belongings or pets, which would have exacerbated traffic congestion and possibly put residents at risk of being trapped on congested roadways."

The report recommended jurisdictions do more to publicize the Citizen Alert system and get residents to sign up for cellphone, text and email notifications.

To sign up for Citizen Alert in Jackson County, visit jacksoncountyor.org/emergency/resources/citizen-alert.

At the time of the fires, the report said, Jackson County had an emergency manager and a vacant position in emergency management.

The county has since hired a new emergency manager and is recruiting to fill a deputy emergency manager position. The county is also adding a fire planning coordinator, Jordan said.

Evacuation challenges

With many residents unaware of the approaching Almeda fire, local law enforcement and others went door-to-door and successfully evacuated almost everyone while firefighters worked to stop the fire from consuming even more neighborhoods.

Three deaths have been tied to the Almeda fire. The South Obenchain fire claimed no lives.

The report said 911 dispatchers were fielding a high volume of radio traffic from first responders while also getting calls from residents looking for information about what they should do. Many times, the information received by dispatchers was incomplete, conflicting or inaccurate.

The report recommends quickly deciding in an emergency whether to activate a citizen hotline to field calls and provide information to the public. The community needs to publicize the hotline number so people don't call 911 for information.

A citizen hotline was launched at 1:25 p.m. Sept. 8, but managers said they didn’t always have accurate updates to share with the public.

The report recommends making plans on how to quickly share the latest information with key players, including citizen hotline managers.

Regarding evacuation routes, the report said there was a gap in communication among city officials, county workers and Oregon Department of Transportation officials. Some cities said their designated evacuation routes were impacted by road closures, and some closures created traffic congestion on open roads.

Interstate 5 was among the roadways closed during the disaster. That caused traffic to divert into Ashland and along Highway 99, further clogging exit routes.

A lack of information meant officials didn’t have accurate information on evacuation routes to provide to residents.

The report recommends including representatives from agencies like ODOT early on at an incident command post or the county Emergency Operations Center. Agencies should also consider forming a multi-jurisdictional evacuation planning team or task force.

On the South Obenchain fire, the report said, communication was strong between firefighters and the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.

“Sheriff deputies were instrumental in supporting evacuation and information sharing, and fire officials checked in routinely to gather information on support needs and conditions on the ground,” the report said.

Sheltering the evacuees

The report commended work by Jackson County staff and community organizations to quickly set up a mass evacuation site and shelter that hosted thousands of people plus animals at The Expo starting the day the fires broke out.

Medical workers from the community helped care for fragile people who had been evacuated from nursing homes. Donations of supplies poured in from the community, and many organizations stepped in to help.

The report recommended more local groups join the Rogue Valley Community Organizations Active in Disaster coalition so efforts can be better coordinated in the future.

Since large-scale events had been shut down at The Expo due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the site had plenty of space available to host people, pets and livestock. It also has been serving as a storage and distribution point for masks, sanitizer and other COVID-19 supplies, so those supplies were available to evacuees.

The report recommends the community identify more potential mass shelter sites, and consider caching supplies in advance at those locations.

Jordan said the Josephine County Fairgrounds and The Expo serve as backup mass evacuation and shelter locations for each other, and local buildings such as churches and schools can serve as smaller sites.

He said the county also has backup buildings identified in case its Emergency Operations Center can't use the 911 dispatch building.

The report said in the early days of the disaster, the American Red Cross was busy with many fires and provided little help. An American Red Cross program to reduce COVID-19 risk by moving fire survivors to hotels was significantly delayed, in part because of the overwhelming numbers of people in need.

The 2020 fire season in Oregon saw the record-breaking destruction of more than 4,000 homes across the state, with nearly 2,500 destroyed by the Almeda fire alone. Most of the losses occurred during September wind storms.

American Red Cross representatives assigned to help with the Jackson County disaster changed regularly, making communication and consistency a challenge.

The report recommended the county consider developing a sheltering plan using its own staff in case the American Red Cross is delayed or unavailable during a future disaster.

It also recommends the county take advantage of the experience gained by staff members during the disaster by training a larger group of employees to work in shelter and emergency command center operations.

Newly homeless evacuees from the Almeda fire wait in line for services at The Expo, which served as a mass evacuation and shelter site for the Almeda and South Obenchain fires. Vickie Aldous/Mail Tribune

The report praised the work of information technology workers with Jackson County and Emergency Communications of Southern Oregon, which operates the 911 dispatch center.

The dispatch center embedded a worker within the county’s Emergency Operations Center, and Jackson County had previously trained some of its information technology employees to work in disaster situations.

Overall, the report said, the community faced a significant challenge with the eruption of two major fires on the same day with 45 mph winds, tinder dry conditions and little outside help.

The report noted the Almeda fire burned a 13-mile path through populated areas from Ashland to just south of Medford.

"Considering the rapid movement of the fire, the close proximity of the fire to large residential areas, and the necessary closures to main transportation arteries, the limited loss of life and the ability to quickly establish shelter to support evacuated residents is a testament to the quick coordination and strong relationships of fire officials, law enforcement, Jackson County agencies, state agencies, community organizations, and the communities in which they serve," the report said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.