Report evaluates Jackson County's response to Almeda, South Obenchain fires

On Thursday, the Board of Jackson County Commissioners received the final report from a firm hired in December to review responses to the September 8 wildfires.

Posted: Jun 2, 2021 12:04 PM
Updated: Jun 3, 2021 6:12 AM

MEDFORD, Ore. — The Jackson County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday received an independent After Action Report of the response to the September 8 wildfires from consulting group Innovative Emergency Management, hired by the County in December.

IEM looked at the Almeda Fire, South Obenchain Fire, and two smaller brush fires that started in the Central Point area while the two larger fires were still burning. Specifically, the consulting group looked at the strengths and weaknesses of Jackson County's preparedness and response during a 10-day period, beginning on September 8.

"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 among fire officials, law enforcement, Jackson County agencies, state agencies, community organizations, and the communities in which they serve," IEM said in the executive summary of the report.

The report highlighted several strengths in Jackson County's handling of the fire event, including rapid response from local agencies, the speed with which an emergency evacuation shelter was set up at the Expo, and the strong existing relationships between the local agencies.

For areas in need of improvement, IEM pointed to challenges with "situational awareness" in the early hours of the fire and issues with the flow of information; a need for greater regional training, planning, and exercises; a vacancy in Jackson County's two-person Emergency Management Department leadership at the time of the fire; and a lack of communication between the different city and county emergency officials that were involved in fighting the fires.

IEM examined a common concern in the wake of the Almeda Fire regarding the County's emergency communications, particularly in regard to evacuations. Jackson County uses the Everbridge system — locally known as Citizen Alert — which allows for targeted messages to registered residents in certain areas. These alerts go out automatically to anyone with a landline, as well as anyone who registers their email or cell phone.

Unused during the September 8 fire response was the venerable Emergency Alert System (EAS), which would have directed television and radio stations to broadcast emergency information. In the wake of the Almeda Fire, many people have questioned why the EAS was not activated.

IEM's report concluded that the use of Citizen Alerts — and the decision to eschew EAS — was an overall strength in Jackson County's response, as the former could issue targeted alerts linked to specific evacuation areas, while the latter has limited ability to provide area-specific information.

"The EAS, compared to the Citizen Alert tool, has limited capabilities to include details such as maps and specific instructions for different areas of the incident" IEM said. "Closures of main transportation arteries were necessary due to erratic fire conditions and heavy smoke, resulting in an added challenge to evacuation efforts. Detailed evacuation notifications including specific mapped areas needing to evacuate were necessary to avoid unintended evacuations and unnecessary traffic."

The consulting group cited fire and law enforcement officials, who expressed concern that a broad message sent to everyone in the area "would have resulted in increased chaos and possibly injuries and death."

During the 10-day period that IEM examined, 39 alerts were issued through the Citizen Alert system — 15 of those during the first 48 hours. But the timeline of when those alerts were sent highlights some of snags in communication during the early hours of the fire event. After a flurry of alerts sent for the Ashland area, beginning just before noon as the Almeda Fire spread, those alerts shifted to the South Obenchain Fire for a period of several hours as officials issued evacuations there.

One alert was sent at 4 p.m. in the Almeda Fire area, urging residents to stay home "unless under an evacuation order," in response to growing congestion on roadways as residents fled the encroaching fire. The next alert, sent at 5 p.m., contained an evacuation notice for the City of Phoenix. No alerts were sent regarding evacuations in the Talent area during that afternoon.

IEM highlighted confusion within local jurisdictions about who was responsible for issuing evacuation alerts, and whether those alerts were going out.

"According to many local jurisdictions’ EOPs, emergency alerting to residents for things such as evacuations is the responsibility of local officials. The County provides emergency alerting to the unincorporated areas of the County as well as support if requested by a local jurisdiction," IEM wrote. "Some local jurisdictions did implement local emergency-alerting processes, and other jurisdictions associated with both the Almeda Drive and South Obenchain fires reported that they primarily relied on door-to-door evacuation notification with reported success. Because the County EOC and some of the cities included in the evacuation areas were not communicating, the County initiated some evacuation alerts through the Citizen Alert system."

At the time of the fire, IEM said, only two people in the area had training and access to issue Citizen Alert messages: the Jackson and Josephine County Emergency Managers. Jackson County's then-Emergency Manager, Stacey Anderson-Belt, was also responsible for setting up the Emergency Operation Center as the fire event unfolded.

"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," IEM noted.

Overall, IEM's post-mortem lauded Jackson County's relatively rapid adaptation to the fire events, with the designation of an EOC Incident Commander after those initial hours, allowing the Emergency Manager to focus on sending out alerts. The report also highlighted officials' use of social media and web resources to issue updates.

"Many positive collaborations and processes were implemented throughout these fire incidents, such as the effective collaboration between ECSO and the Jackson County IT Department and the organizational structure implemented by County shelter-management staff," IEM wrote. "These successes should be memorialized and integrated into city- and County-level emergency plans for future emergency responses."

According to Jackson County's damage assessments, the Almeda and South Obenchain fires destroyed more than 2,600 properties, with approximately 2,500 considered residential structures and 171 commercial properties. Three people died during the Almeda Fire, two of whom have been publicly identified.

Though officials accept that the September 8 fires were fueled and spread by extreme weather conditions, the official cause of the Almeda Fire remains under investigation.

This is a developing story and will be updated with more details as they emerge.

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