Is wildfire preparedness reporting a waste of time?

On September 8, I received a press release from the city of Ashland, Oregon, a small college town not far from the California border. It said a grass fire had started near the dog park, and advised those living in the area to consider evacuating.

I live six miles north, in the neighboring town of Talent, and work for Jefferson Public Radio, an NPR member station that covers an expansive, mostly rural region across Northern California and Southern Oregon. That morning, the northbound winds had picked up. My husband had opened the front door and looked to the sky. “That’s the most ominous thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said, and laughed nervously, pointing at a massive plume of dark-gray smoke that spread as it moved slowly toward us.

I’d already put a recorder, microphone, and headphones into the waist pack I use for work. However, anticipating an evacuation alert from the county emergency notification system, I decided not to chase the fire. Instead, I prepared to evacuate my home. As I packed, I huffed and puffed, frustrated to skip an opportunity to do on-the-ground reporting within minutes of my home.

My husband and I finished packing the car, and we had yet to receive an evacuation alert from the county. The traffic in front of our house became rushed and panicked. The plume grew larger as it neared. I asked a neighbor if we should wait. He said no. Just go.

What should have been a fifteen-minute drive to a friend’s house ultimately took an hour. Stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the Almeda Drive Fire blazed just a few hundred feet from my car. I watched helicopters drop buckets of water on the billowing smoke. I received an alert from Jackson County, instructing all businesses and residences in the neighboring town of Phoenix to evacuate. But the fire had already spread to Phoenix by then. Another alert came, advising county residents not to leave their homes unless they received an evacuation notice. I never got one for Talent, even as fire engulfed my neighborhood.

 

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IN RECENT YEARS, much of my work has concerned wildfire readiness. I spent months on a series highlighting ways in which wildfire response systems fail marginalized populations. That series focused on the 2018 Carr Fire in Redding, California, an hour’s drive south of the Oregon border. The Carr Fire moved so fast that many people didn’t get alerts on their phones, or only received them in English. Some had law enforcement officers banging on their doors, demanding that they evacuate immediately. That was traumatic for the city’s Latino population, especially for people who speak limited English or who are generally fearful of law enforcement and government agencies. People with disabilities didn’t get the time they needed to evacuate safely. Emergency alerts almost completely left out unsheltered people who were sleeping in public spaces as the fire descended on Redding.

For another series, I profiled a small Oregon community called Foots Creek, which had experienced a destructive wildfire in 2002. Following that fire, Foots Creek developed an elaborate disaster response plan, which included phone trees and a digital database listing residents’ contact information; useful skills such as First Aid training and firefighting experience; and equipment like horse trailers for evacuating farm animals. Community residents worked closely with Forest Service and law enforcement officials on this plan. That story, though focused on Foots Creek, was a solutions-journalism piece whose lessons on wildfire preparation go well beyond a single place. Communities in the path of an encroaching wildfire need a rapid alert system, a plan for directing traffic efficiently during mass evacuations, and coordination between multiple agencies.

By reporting on the weaknesses in emergency-response systems and spotlighting efforts to fix them, I hoped to better prepare other communities, including my own. My experiences during the Almeda Drive Fire, however, have left me wondering whether my own local officials ever read or listened to my reporting—or whether it was all a waste of time.

Earlier this year, I’d asked local emergency-management officials and humanitarian organizations how we would shelter mass evacuees during a wildfire in the middle of a pandemic. At the time, an American Red Cross spokesman told me they would avoid putting people into a congregate shelter, like a school gym, and instead put people into hotel rooms. When I asked whether they were signing contracts with hotel managers to ensure availability when the time came, he said no. I explained how hotel rooms tend to get completely booked during mass evacuations; he replied that the Red Cross and local emergency managers expected more hotel vacancies than usual because fewer people were traveling during the pandemic. An emergency manager in a nearby county told me they’d never had mass evacuations before and didn’t anticipate them anytime soon. 

On the day that the Almeda Drive Fire forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes, the Red Cross stationed a “temporary” evacuation center at the county fairgrounds. When I got there, volunteers were encouraging people to sleep in their cars. Those who didn’t have cars got lawn chairs. The fairgrounds didn’t have enough cots to provide one to each of the several hundred people who flooded through their doors, so they could only provide beds to people with disabilities. Hotels in the surrounding area had been booked solid.

In my previous experiences reporting on wildfires in other places, I had the privilege of distance. I was ultimately able to leave the destruction they wrought behind me and write with an observer’s detachment. But this time, there’s no hiding it: I’m angry. I never got an evacuation alert for my city, despite the fire burning nearly everything across the street from my house. County officials never issued an emergency broadcast alert through local TV and radio stations, and didn’t openly communicate with newsrooms to get crucial information out to people who needed it. 

Now, every day, I drive past piles of ash and debris to get to my house. Weeks after the fire, I still stare at the destruction, looking for places that used to be familiar to me. Like many people I’ve interviewed, I’m left with questions—about why the emergency alert system failed us, whether the air is safe to breathe. Above all, I want to know whether my community is prepared for next time.

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April Ehrlich is a reporter with Jefferson Public Radio, the NPR station based near the Oregon-California border. She advocates for local journalists through the Oregon Territory Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, where she is vice president of the board.

TOP IMAGE: The aftermath of the Almeda Drive Fire in Phoenix, Oregon. Chris Tuite/imageSPACE/Sipa USA via AP Images