Salemites say improvements needed to “confusing” fire alert system

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.

As of Monday afternoon, the areas of Vitae Springs Road between South Skyline Road to River Road South, the west side of Skyline Road from Vitae Springs Road to Cole Road South, Orville Road South and Riversprings Road to Prospect Ridge were still in a Level 1 Evacuation Zone. There were no Level 2 or 3 evacuations in place, a county map showed

No injuries were reported and no structures were lost to the fire, according to Greg Walsh, Salem’s emergency preparedness manager.

An estimated 119 single-family homes in the area were under mandatory evacuation notice – Level 3 – with 516 under a Level 2 — meaning they will have to be ready to go in a moment’s notice.

“We really felt like we were on our own,” said 65-year-old resident Sheryl Ellis, who lives off of Southeast Barnes Avenue in Salem. “It was unnecessarily confusing and stressful…We have to do this right. We aren’t going to get second chances like we just got.”

Alerts lacked clarity

Residents have to sign up to receive the emergency alerts when there is a hazard in the area.

About two years ago the state contracted with Everbridge, a public warning service, for a statewide emergency alert system, Walsh said.

It’s used in Marion County for events like an active shooter or a suspect near a school, as well as internally by the Salem Police Department to reach other city employees. The Salem Fire Department can also use it to alert off-duty employees to provide backup as needed, said Brian Carrara, deputy chief of administrative services.

Walsh said the city has received some direct complaints from Salemites who didn’t receive alerts about the south Salem fire. 

That’s typically because they didn’t register for the service, or their address was outside the hazard zone. Of around 8,000 people who were sent alerts, 3,000 to 4,000 acknowledged receiving them. 

Walsh said people should check the system to make sure they’re signed up and that their information is current. Registration can be done online. Those who opt in to the system will receive alerts for the areas they sign up for, regardless of whether they are physically in the area when the alert is sent, said Sgt. Jeremy Landers, Marion County Sheriff’s Office spokesman.

But even for residents who received alerts like Ellis, the event highlighted the need for better collaboration between the city and county, and a more inclusive approach, particularly for elderly residents.

“It was just a really crazy situation because we were just starting to cook dinner and my daughter was visiting with my granddaughter and we got the alert but we don’t know where Vitae Springs is, and we don’t understand the evacuation levels,” Ellis said. “(The alert) was not helpful at all in terms of telling us how close we were, so we went on Google Maps to see where we were, and we’re about four miles, so we figured that we were in evacuation (level) 2.”

Ellis said the messages didn’t identify the exact areas that fell within the evacuation zones, or the urgency of each. Because of this, her 90-year-old neighbor received the phone call notice and called Ellis “hysterical” and afraid of how she would transport herself and her two kittens. 

Their apartment complex has several elderly residents who live alone, Ellis said, so she was concerned for their safety as well since she could only feasibly evacuate her family and her one neighbor if that became necessary.

Later text message alerts also included an incorrect link to a map, which was followed by a text correcting it. 

Another recurring concern shared by residents was the messages didn’t indicate until late in the evening  that people should evacuate to Judson Middle School.

“Everybody’s looking at me to make some decisions – my granddaughter is at the door ready to leave,  and I’m just like, ‘Wait, wait, wait. I don’t understand what we’re supposed to do, or where we’re supposed to go,’” said Ellis. “So we decided to just look out the window and see if anybody else left.”

Facing uncertainty and gaps in information, some residents took to Facebook or other social media to find information, and even started organizing resources and evacuation plans for livestock on their own before the county announced Judson as a place to go. 

Heidi Zawelevsky, who lives near Battle Creek Elementary School, found Reddit to be the most helpful source, even though she’s not a regular user. 

“That was where I started to see the most up-to-date information, and there was someone who was posting pretty good information on it,” Zawelevsky said. 

She sought information from more official social media pages such as Salem Fire and the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, but couldn’t find any information posted there until just before 8 p.m. (about 2 hours after the first alert), including clarifying information about the level of evacuation notice for her neighborhood.

“I never did find out,” Zawelevsky said. “The consensus seemed to be that we were Level 2, so I just decided to conform to that.”

A reminder of 2021

The community is unfortunately no stranger to fires. 

Vitae Springs also burned in September 2021, starting from a vehicle fire and spreading across the grass. It prompted 35 home evacuations in the 4000 – 4300 block of Vitae Springs Road and had about 28 emergency vehicles respond. 

“One of the confusions around the notice, is it seemed like it was defaulting to something that happened last year because there was no information once I got the public service phone call that gave me a link to the information – it just stopped there,” said Zawelevsky. “So I started going online and then all it was bringing up was what happened last year, so I got really confused.”

She said it wasn’t clear until later that the new fire happened in the same area and was active.

Future plans

The city plans an after-action review of the response. Walsh said he expects that will include an assessment of the emergency messaging and how it can be improved.

He said that may not be done for another one to two weeks.

Landers said the process will include reviewing community feedback. “We are committed to continuing to adapt our practices and applying lessons learned,” he said.

The alert system is activated once public safety agencies establish the area of hazard, map a boundary and then trigger a notification to all registered residents in that area. The alerts go out via text message to cell phones, by email or by automated phone calls, depending on what methods people select. If the fire is close to a home, first responders  go door knocking, Walsh said.

For evacuations in Oregon, the sheriff makes the final call of whether to send out an alert. Walsh said they’re intended to target the area directly impacted by wildfire.

“We don’t send mass alerts to everybody who doesn’t need it,” he said. 

But that approach means other residents who live in surrounding areas are left seeking information elsewhere.

“It didn’t impact my neighbors. The fire didn’t come to their door, but it generated a great deal of anxiety,” said Salem City Councilor Vanessa Nordyke, who represents Ward 7 in southwest Salem, the ward nearest to the fire area. “I think that the lessons learned from this fire and the Beachie Creek Fire is that people get general concern about whether it will impact them personally. But also, they want to know if their neighbors, their relatives or people out in the community are going to be evacuated. Are their livestock going to be evacuated? Are they going to lose their homes?”

Nordyke wrote in a Facebook post Saturday that she visited the Judson relief center and that those evacuated at the time didn’t need donations, but that she would give an update if that changed. The response showed a significant community interest in knowing whether any supplies, volunteers and donations were needed, with a desire to help.

“I understand the concept of an alert system where you receive an alert if you are impacted directly,” she said. “But that doesn’t resolve or address the anxiety you feel if it doesn’t impact you directly but you care about people in the area.”

Nordyke said she is interested in talking with city staff about getting out more information to those who want to know what is happening, even if the fire isn’t impacting them personally.

“They might have  a place where people can stay, they might have supplies, they might be able to let someone couch surf for a night, they might be able to take on some livestock,” she said. “There are some people who didn’t receive notification and because they weren’t subject to an evacuation, even at the lowest possible risk level, but they still want to know what was happening. And I think we can always always do a better job of communicating so that no one feels left out.”

Going forward, residents would like to see better communication and more physical resources to prepare elderly residents who may not have access to technology.

“First of all, I want to thank them because their actual actions in tackling the fire I think were really good, so I don’t want to let that slip,” Zawelevsky said. She noted that more frequent posts on social media updating residents of the fire growth or containment would be helpful. 

“I just think that given all of our incredible technology, they should be able to do it. It’s going to be an ongoing problem with the way things are in the environment, so I hope we can really learn something from it,” Zawelesky said.

Residents also suggested making the county map more user friendly,  and even providing laminated printouts describing the three evacuation levels and a list of essentials people should have to be prepared.

Ellis noted it was “a good practice” to be able to identify gaps in the system now, but with wildfires becoming more common, it is important to make changes. 

“Things have to be different if this is going to happen again, and it will. Things are getting worse and worse all the time,” Ellis said. “We’re living in an active fire zone, there are earthquakes – it does not hurt to be better prepared.”


UPDATE: Evacuation order lifted, residents can return to south Salem homes as fire smolders

UPDATED: Vitae Springs fire contained, mop up in progress, evacuations remain in place

BREAKING: Brush fire forcing evacuations in south Salem as crews surround the blaze

Contact reporter Jordyn Brown at [email protected]. Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.

Jordyn Brown is an Oregon journalist who formerly worked for the Eugene Register-Guard.