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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Officials reflect on the successes and struggles of response to Gray, Oregon fires

Spokane Fire District Three Chief Cody Rohrbach stands Aug. 23 before a map and speaks to the crowd gathered at Medical Lake High School for a community meeting to talk about the catastrophic fires of last weekend in and around Medical Lake, Washington.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

When the urgent request came for more deputies to help evacuate Medical Lake from a fast-moving wildfire Aug. 18, Sheriff John Nowels immediately called for reinforcements.

”It was moving so quickly and moving toward a densely populated area, I just knew that we were going to need more personnel,” Nowels said.

He called Spokane police and asked for 20 officers to help evacuate the city of Medical Lake.

Not long after another wildfire was reported near Elk, stretching resources even thinner not only for the sheriff’s office but for firefighters, dispatchers, and other emergency workers.

The No. 1 focus was saving people’s lives, both Nowels and Spokane County First District 3 Chief Cody Rohrbach said.

Officials were largely successful, although one person died at each fire. The circumstances of their deaths remain under investigation.

More than a month after the fires, officials’ No. 1 regret is they didn’t have more people available to help with the natural disaster.

Fire crews initially responded to a brush fire on Gray Road and knew right away the blaze would be difficult to extinguish as strong winds blew it into raging wildfire, Rohrbach said.

Evacuation zones are recommended by fire command but operated by the sheriff’s office.

Dispatch is notified of the evacuation zones and create maps that are pushed out on social media, to news outlets, and through multiple notification systems as alerts to phones in the area.

The base level of notification, usually used for Level 1: get ready and Level 2: get set evacuations, is called ALERT Spokane.

It’s an opt-in system that people sign up for based on their home address. That means people will be alerted to incidents affecting their home even if they aren’t currently present at their residence.

Only about 6% of people in Spokane County are signed up for the alerts, said Chandra Fox, Deputy Director of Spokane County Emergency Management.

The second level of alerts are through the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS) which geotargets cellphones and sends them a pop up alert. Anyone with their emergency alerts turned on the area will receive one.

On the first day of the fires, evacuation zones were changing so fast, Fox said.

“Part of our challenge was that the fires were moving so quickly that our evacuation zones were moving so quickly,” Fox said.

They began sending out Level 2 evacuation alerts via the IPAWS system because it was difficult to keep up.

Many people used social media to keep up with evacuation levels. A District 3 firefighter out with an injury kept the district’s Facebook page up to date as things changed, Rohrbach said.

Geographic Information System experts at dispatch built an interactive evacuation zone map during the fire to make it easier for people to see how evacuations affected them, Rohrbach said.

“They did a phenomenal job of putting that technology together,” Rohrbach said.

But deputies going door-to-door was important, Nowels said.

With evacuations common in the Spokane area, many people decided to stay in their homes. It wasn’t until deputies frantically knocked on people’s doors and pushed them to leave that they evacuated, Nowels said.

“We had plenty of stories like that,” Nowels said. “That’s why we do go knock on peoples’ doors.”

Nowels also said with the fire starting during the workday when people weren’t at home worked in their favor.

“I think that helped prevent some other deaths and some complications,” Nowels said.

Nowels, Rohrbach, Fox and representatives from the Department of Natural Resources all said interagency communication went extremely well and was a crucial part of fighting the fire.

Nowels wished he would have had more staff on duty that day and in the aftermath of the fire to prevent looting.

Rohrbach noted the struggle to balance resources fighting the fire and those assessing property damage in the first days after the fire.

Emergency management’s primary issue was their small six-person staff. She hopes in the future to have a call center staffed with volunteers so that a fire information line can be available immediately and not change throughout the duration of the fire.

She also hopes this disaster is a lesson to residents that they should be prepared for fire season in the region. Dispatch fielded numerous calls from people asking if evacuations affected them only for the caller to struggle to describe where they live.

“When you move outside of town, it’s on you to understand where you live,” Fox said.

They also received calls following the fire from people who were scared but didn’t leave their home because they hadn’t received an evacuation notice.

“You don’t have to wait for that Level 3, go now message to come to you,” Fox said. “People have the ability to make choices and determine their own comfort level with risk.”

Fox encouraged people to be proactive by making their home more wildfire resistant by clearing brush and other flammable foliage away from the house, having a go-bag, and signing up for emergency alerts.

“Folks need to understand where they live, they need to understand the hazards where they live and they need to prepare,” Fox said. “Because a lot of it does rest on the individual and the choice they make for their property.”