Last Friday, September 9, the Vitae Springs fire in south Salem caused lots of people to search for information about how rapidly the wildfire was spreading, where evacuations were taking place, and what the chances were of the fire reaching areas further away.
Like, my neighborhood, Spring Lake Estates, that adjoins the Ankeny Wildlife Refuge. Friday evening I'd seen a report that a Level 1 (Be Ready) evacuation notice had been issued for areas four to six miles from where the Vitae Springs fire had started.
I found via Google Maps that our house was about 7.6 miles from the fire, by road. Less as the crow flies, or as a fire could move. Too close for comfort; apparently not close enough for us to get an emergency message.
After the 2020 Santiam Canyon fires, my wife and I had both signed up for Everbridge alerts. But last Friday we never got any sort of emergency message, not by text, not by phone, not by email. Some of our neighbors did get alerts, even though they weren't any closer to the fire than we were.
Worse, when I tried to log in to my Everbridge account to make sure that my contact information was correct, Everbridge told me that my password couldn't be recognized. So in the midst of our anxiety about what we were afraid could be a rapidly spreading wildfire, I had to spend time resetting my password.
My wife had an even bigger problem with Everbridge. She also got a message that either her username or password wasn't recognized when she tried to log in to her account. But she got stuck in an endless loop where she couldn't get a message sent to her email account to reset her password, because Everbridge told her the email wasn't valid.
However, when she tried to set up a new Everbridge account, she got an error message saying her email address already was in use. So my wife and I couldn't figure out a way to log in to her account, and she couldn't set up a new account either.
It sure seems like it shouldn't take a degree in computer science to be able to get emergency notification messages. Yes, we were outside of the evacuation areas for the Vitae Springs fire, so I can understand why we didn't get any emergency message.
However, we were close to the Level 1 "Be Ready" zone. It would have been nice if the Everbridge system had sent a message to everybody within, say, ten miles of the fire. The message could have communicated information about the fire, indicating where someone could find the current evacuation zones.
I use Twitter and Facebook, so I could find info about the fire that way. But some of our neighbors don't. So when I posted messages about the fire to our neighborhood's Facebook page, people would ask, "How did you learn that?" I'd say, via a Salem Reporter or Statesman Journal Twitter tweet.
What this episode taught me is what I already knew: our local professional journalists are really good to have around in an emergency. I trusted what they were saying about the Vitae Springs fire, because I figured they were accurately assessing the information coming in from various sources.
I realize that things are bound to be confusing in the first hours of a wildfire. Still, it would have been nice for people to know where to go to get valid information about the fire. Friday evening I saw a City of Salem emergency services manager say in a video that the fire had been surrounded and wasn't spreading.
But when I woke up Saturday morning the Level 2 (Get Set) evacuation zone had extended almost to the Ankeny Wildlife Refuge, so very close to our neighborhood. That info came from the Marion County Sheriff's Office. Again, not from Everbridge.
A few days ago the Salem Reporter had a story that echoed our experience: Salemites say improvements needed to "confusing" fire alert system. For sure. Here's how the story starts off.
Residents are calling on local officials to examine the Salem area’s emergency messaging system, saying evacuation alerts for last weekend’s Vitae Springs Fire left people confused and uncertain about conditions.
The fire, which began on Friday, Sept. 9, burned close to 165 acres with alerts urging people within 6 miles of the fire to prepare for evacuation, and prompting many to evacuate their homes.
However, several residents told Salem Reporter these alerts were confusing, lacked information about where to go, linked to unhelpful maps and were inaccessible for those unfamiliar with technology.