On September 8 of last year, the Almeda Fire and South Obenchain Fire started less than 25 miles from each other, displacing thousands of residents and causing the deaths of three people. Since then, investigators have been trying to piece together exactly what happened and why.
On June 2, 2021, Jackson County released the once-confidential “Jackson County Fire Incidents After Action Report.”
The report commended many of Jackson County’s actions – including first responders’ heroic door-to-door evacuations, the creation of a Jackson County citizen hotline, and the quick activation of the Expo as a temporary evacuation point for evacuees.
The Almeda Fire, which started on September 8th, was driven by 35 to 45-mile-an-hour winds and low humidity.
It quickly burned along a 13-mile path next to I-5, beginning in Ashland before finally being stopped just south of Medford.
The report delves into the planned procedures in the event of such an emergency and how they played out in real life, reviewing the response and communications that are essential to first responders.
The report says the County Emergency Operations Center, or EOC, had trouble getting timely and accurate situational awareness and evacuation information which impacted its ability to send out detailed public alerts.
It says this was due to the speed and intensity of the fire, making radio traffic and field reports conflicting and unclear from the many agencies involved.
In addition, during the early stages, the report states “communications were not established between the County EOC and city leadership, creating a gap in understanding conditions on the ground and affected jurisdictions’ needs.”
According to the report, one of the strengths identified was a “rapid response from multiple disciplines and agencies.” Among the agencies identified was Jackson County Emergency Management, whose manager was out of a job just four months after the fire. During the fires, JCEM chose to use the county’s Everbridge-provided “citizen alert” phone notification system instead of using a county-wide emergency alert system or “EAS.”
She released a statement to us in October about the county’s response to the fire. She said decisions about notices are based on multiple factors and no single individual makes them. She went on to say, “Learning what was done well and what could have gone better will be a great learning asset for our community. I know people are hurting and upset and looking for answers. While we were doing everything we could to help, we know our performance may have fallen short of public expectations during this unprecedented fire event and we are working hard to help our citizens recover as we move forward.”
Multiple people working there indicated in the report that Anderson-Belt 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.
The Everbridge “citizen alert” system only works if you’re already signed up for it or have a landline telephone in the alert area. However, after a public records request, NBC5 News learned that Talent never received an alert at all.
Only a small fraction of Jackson County residents had signed up for it before the Almeda Fire. Tens of thousands more did after the fire.
Most evacuees were given little to no notice, oftentimes getting knocks on doors from firefighters themselves. “To me, that’s the best alert you can get when somebody is pulling you from a burning building and saving your life,” said Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler during a press conference. The sheriff’s office defended the non-deployment of the EAS, citing traffic as an issue.
Head of the Emergency Operations Center John Vial said other cities have been criticized for using the EAS because he claimed most people get information from their phones.
The report says Jackson County should continue to collaborate with Josephine County on public education and outreach covering signing up for citizen alerts to help local residents be more prepared for emergencies.
Jackson County’s choice not to send out a mass county-wide ’emergency alert’ during the Almeda Fire was covered in the report.
The Emergency Alert System interrupts all broadcast TV and cable channels, as well as radio stations locally, when Jackson County or Oregon State Police activate it.
Broadcasters cannot issue it without approval.
The report 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 concluded that “…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 is a testament to the quick coordination and strong relationships… of the people involved.”
The exact causes of the Almeda and South Obenchain Fires are still under investigation.
The report was presented by consulting firm Innovative Emergency Management.
NBC5 News is working on more details about the report and reaching out to local officials for their reactions. Check HERE for updates.
NBC5 News reporter Mariah Mills is a Medford native. She graduated from the University of Oregon with a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism. She also minored in sociology.
In school, she covered Oregon athletics for the student-run television station, Duck TV. When she’s not reporting, she’s reading, hiking and rooting for her favorite teams, the Seattle Seahawks and the Oregon Ducks.