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Opt-In Emergency Notification System Left Gaps During Almeda Fire

Hundreds of residences and businesses in Phoenix and Talent, Oregon were burned or destroyed in the 2020 Almeda Fire.
Erik Neumann
Hundreds of residences and businesses in Phoenix and Talent, Oregon were burned or destroyed in the 2020 Almeda Fire.

When the Almeda Fire swept through communities in Southern Oregon last week, some residents didn’t get emergency notifications. That calls into question the effectiveness of Jackson County’s system that requires people to sign up in advance to get alerts.

Paul Graumann moved to Phoenix, Oregon from Portland less than a year before the Almeda Fire tore through town. He says he didn’t get any alerts on the night of the fire via text, radio or TV about evacuating. He got out with minutes to spare.

“There were some neighborhood kids that actually came to my door and told me it’s time to evacuate,” Graumann says. “And I was going out the door, and the flames were already burning up this vacant lot that was next door to [the] apartments.”

He evacuated to the Jackson County Expo after the fire. He thinks his apartment was destroyed.

Graumann didn’t get Jackson County’s emergency notifications because he didn’t sign up for the opt-in system for text alerts, which he says he didn’t know about. Similar accounts have appeared on social media in recent days.

Jackson County uses a system called Everbridge to send out emergency notifications over cell phones. But even that program can be unreliable during disasters.

“When everybody jumps on their cell phones and starts calling everybody, the system isn’t going to be able to take that type of influx of bandwidth,” says Stacy Anderson-Belt, the Jackson County emergency manager.

Fast-moving fire damage to cell towers can also prevent the very messages from going out that would help people plan an evacuation.

During a press conference for the Almeda Fire and South Obenchain Fire in the Rogue Valley on Thursday, officials said with active fires and hazards, this is not yet the time to evaluate how well the system worked.

“Life safety is number one. Saving property is number two. When we get to that point where we can look at how the process went in our after-action reports, then we can look at that,” said Rich Tyler with the Oregon State Fire Marshals Office.

Residents throughout Oregon and California typically sign up for emergency notifications from their county emergency manager or sheriff’s office. Information about signing up can usually be found on the websites or social media for those local county offices.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.