Cause of Vitae Springs Fire ruled ‘undetermined’ a year later

Salem fire officials say they could not determine what started the Vitae Springs Fire that a year ago forced over 100 families to evacuate their homes.

Investigators identified three possibilities for the cause of the southwest Salem fire but were unable to prove or disprove any of the theories. They concluded the cause was “undetermined,” according to Brian Carrara, deputy fire chief of administrative services for the Salem Fire Department.

Deputy Fire Chief Scott Leavell declined to say what investigators identified as possible causes of the fire, instead repeating the agency’s earlier statement. Fire officials at the time said they were investigating whether a field mowing operation caused the fire.

The finding comes as city officials say that since the fire they have prepared to deliver quicker and clearer public information during future emergencies. Residents at the time said the evacuation alerts left them confused and uncertain about conditions. 

The fire in September 2022 burned 164 acres in the Vitae Springs area, which is southwest of Salem city limits near Independence.

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

No injuries were reported and no structures were lost to the fire. But several residents told Salem Reporter that the evacuation alerts were confusing, lacked information about where to go, linked to unhelpful maps and weren’t accessible for those unfamiliar with technology.

Such alerts for emergencies in Marion and Polk County are sent to people who sign up online. The alert system is activated once public safety agencies map the area of hazard and then trigger a notification to all registered residents in that area. People can choose to receive alerts by text message to cell phones, by email or by automated phone calls. If a fire is close to a home, first responders go door knocking.

Carrara said city officials have worked since the Vitae Springs Fire to ensure that emergency alerts provide more clear and thorough information.

“They are now focusing on crafting alerts that offer concise instructions on what actions residents need to take, where to go for safety, and what resources are available,” he said in an email.

Fire officials said the Vitae Springs Fire started in this grass field on Sept. 9, 2022, moving into highly flammable Scotch broom before reaching forested hills (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

The city has also revised its alert systems to provide the public timely and accurate notifications, according to Carrara. He said that included “refining the notification process to ensure messages reach a broader audience and are less likely to be missed.”

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

About three years ago the state contracted with Everbridge, a Massachusetts software company for, a statewide emergency alert system.

The service is used in Marion County for events such as an active shooter or a suspect near a school, as well as internally by the Salem Police Department to reach city employees. The Salem Fire Department can also use it to alert off-duty employees to summon additional help.

Leavell said the city now has set up templates to alert people about specific incidents, such as a fire, active shooter, missing person, flood or dam breach. They are pre-set so dispatchers can add information people would need for any situation and send out a message with a few clicks.

“If these templates aren’t in place, sending a message can be much more difficult, as the person in charge would have to assemble the message content, which can be a daunting task in an emergency,” Leavell said in an email. “For these reasons, having an incident communications system with pre-set, variable-driven templates for emergencies and situations can prove invaluable.”

Dispatchers at the Willamette Valley Communications Center now also receive training and certification showing they understand “the full versatility and best practices” in creating such an alert, Leavell said.

The training covers topics including selecting templates, sending out alerts and updating them with new information.

Vegetation smolders on the Vitae Springs Fire on Sept. 11, 2022, No structures were lost in the fire that started two days earlier, officials said (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

City officials said following the Vitae Springs Fire that they received some direct complaints from Salem residents who didn’t receive alerts.

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 by electronic response that they had received them, according to Greg Walsh, Salem’s emergency preparedness manager at the time.

Carrara said the city recently worked with Marion County’s Emergency Management Department to create a mailer that was sent out to targeted city areas explaining how to use the alert system.

“We are continuing to share things on social media and other available avenues to educate the public about everbridge, evacuation levels, and home hardening for wildfire protection,” he said.

Both efforts are paid for through a $10,000 agreement with the Oregon State Fire Marshal. The city has spent all of the state funding, Carrara said.

The state Department of Emergency Management had not yet completed its after-action report for the 2022 wildfire season, according to agency spokeswoman Chris Crabb.

Leavell said the Salem Fire Department did an “internal briefing” of the Vitae Springs Fire.

“This was an informal after action review of the incident. There is no documentation for this review,” he said in an email.


Vitae Springs fire 100% contained

Salemites say improvements needed to “confusing” fire alert system

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 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.