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Report analyzes Jackson County’s Almeda Fire response, calls for better coordination

A Talent resident overlooks the destruction of his home on Sept 12, 2020, a few days after the Almeda Fire.
April Ehrlich
A Talent resident overlooks the destruction of his home on Sept 12, 2020, a few days after the Almeda Fire.

The county contracted with emergency management consulting firm IEM in November to produce a report analyzing its response to the Almeda and Obenchain fires. The report, which was released Wednesday, commends the county for its swift response in evacuating tens of thousands of people on Sept. 8 last year, when wildfires destroyed 2,500 homes in a matter of hours. Three people died, including someone who was homeless.

The report also highlights key weaknesses in the way city and county leaders responded to the disaster. It points to miscommunication, understaffing and insufficient training.

The report’s timeline shows that Jackson County’s Citizen Alert system never issued evacuation notices to people in Talent, even as a third of the city burned.

City administrator Danny Jordan said the county never got the information it needed from the city to issue those alerts.

“When the fire moved into Talent, Talent did not implement their [Emergency Operations Plan],” Jordan said in an interview. “They didn’t request any evacuations.”

Talent’s emergency plan calls on the police chief to step into the emergency manager role during a time of disaster, who would then be in charge of issuing evacuation notices to the county. The city’s plan, which hasn’t been updated since 2012, outlines staff roles and other emergency procedures. Nonetheless, city staff weren’t sure how to best communicate with the county, according to Interim City Manager Jamie McLeod-Skinner.

“People were literally risking their lives to handle what they could see coming at them and destroying the community,” McLeod-Skinner said in an interview. “To go back and criticize someone for not following a procedure in a manual I think is incredibly unfair.”

The city has undergone several staff changes since last summer, including the city manager, city recorder, and police chief. Chief Tim Doney announced his retirement that year, and Interim Chief Jennifer Snook started the job just two days after the Almeda Fire. The city was also struggling to keep police officers on the force; in June, several officers announced they were leaving or considering job offers elsewhere.

McLeod-Skinner said that on the day of the fires, most officers and staff were busy helping people escape.

“If you are a larger organization, you have people who are staffed specifically for this type of task,” McLeod-Skinner said. “When you are a very small organization — including Talent, which at the time did not even have full capacity — you get all hands on deck just helping people get out of town.”

IEM’s report says dispatchers were frantically fielding a high volume of calls from residents and officials who were looking for information about whether they should evacuate. But even dispatchers didn’t know what to tell them.

“Many times, the information received by dispatchers was incomplete or inaccurate, and dispatchers spent valuable time deconflicting and confirming information,” it reads.

The report says some county officials were confused as to why the county never issued an alert through the Emergency Alert System, which interrupts radio and television broadcasts to issue emergency information. It says “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.”

The report calls on the county to develop a data-gathering process and plan for sharing information across jurisdictions; set up a citizen hotline to take calls from people seeking information; and establish a public information officer to disseminate information to media agencies. It notes that some officials weren’t aware of briefings and, therefore, missed important meetings. It calls on the county to develop a schedule for routine briefings and to post those notices in a way that’s accessible.

It also says that the county’s Citizen Alert system was only accessible to two people: the emergency managers for Jackson and Josephine counties. It suggests the county cross-train staff on how to use the mass notification system.

The report notes that the county had just two full-time staff members in its emergency management team at the time of the fires, and one of those roles was in the process of hiring. It suggests the county add more staff to its emergency team.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

April Ehrlich began freelancing for Jefferson Public Radio in the fall of 2016, and then officially joined the team as its Morning Edition Host and a Jefferson Exchange producer in August 2017.