Jan Gregg took this selfie when all phone service was down. Photo courtesy Jan Gregg

Jan Gregg took this selfie when all phone service was down. Photo courtesy Jan Gregg

Outages, service failures made connecting difficult

By Laurelle Walsh

The Carlton Complex Fire that began from four separate lightning strikes, merged into an unstoppable firestorm that triggered evacuations, and destroyed life and property. When the valley lost power, confusion and fear mounted, and many residents found themselves craving information more than they wanted a hot shower or the lights turned on.

Communication became paramount as evacuation levels rose and neighbors and family members tried to find out what was happening just a few miles away. For many, driving to a central hub like the Carlton Store or the Methow Valley Community Center was the only way to get the latest information.

Residents posted notes on post office bulletin boards and stood on street corners sharing what they knew or had heard.

The Incident Command Post set up at Liberty Bell High School began holding daily fire briefings as soon as the fire camp was erected, and public meetings were held in Pateros, Carlton, Twisp and Winthrop where fire officials, politicians and community leaders presented what they knew at the time.

In the Carlton North Zone that stretches from McFarland Creek to Winthrop, 30 public information officers (PIOs) were deployed to update 16 fire information boards and answer questions. “We are constantly updating the Carlton Complex Facebook, Twitter and blogspot pages,” said PIO James Schwarber. “We’re using multiple tools and multiple teams to get information out as soon as possible.” The PIOs also reported back to Incident Command with concerns they were hearing from the community, Schwarber said.

CenturyLink, the Methow’s DSL and landline provider, was down for nearly five days after its fiber optic cables burned, knocking out local, long distance, Internet and 911 service. Local numbers for fire and police stations became the only way people could make emergency calls — if they could call at all.

“The biggest lesson learned during this situation was that we [the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative] need to install a small satellite Internet service here in case the fiber optics go out again,” said co-op General Manager David Gottula. “We need to be able to function totally off grid during an emergency.”

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Filling the gap

But perhaps the biggest communications story during the disaster was how wireless phone and Internet helped fill the communications gap.

When the power was shut off on July 17 and the Methow Valley News could no longer update its website or obtain information from the web, one smart phone operating off Verizon towers and social media became the newspaper’s way to reach the outside world.

For several days, even during the brief evacuation of her family to the west side of the Cascades, publication designer Darla Hussey was the only News staff member able to access the Internet, posting regular updates on the newspaper’s Facebook page and reposting photos and information provided by Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow, Carlton Complex Wildfire Incident Management and others.

The number of Methow Valley News Facebook followers quickly rose to over 2,900, as people shared its posts. Reporters Ann McCreary and Marcy Stamper drove up and down the valley to gather information and dictated their stories to Hussey, who typed them into her phone.

KTRT radio station manager Don Ashford endured three days off the air until he was able to get a generator hooked up at the station, he said.

KTRT’s signal is sent from the station at TwispWorks to a transmitter on McLure Mountain via a LAN network, similar to Wi-Fi, Ashford said. “If I could get a signal up there it would get transmitted.”

Ashford was able to ride up the mountain on a motorcycle and insert a public service announcement about the emergency and temporary radio outage directly onto the transmitter, he said.

The lack of dependable cell service from his AT&T cellular phone carrier was infuriating, Ashford said. “I would have done radio updates via Facebook, but I had the wrong phone.”

The lack of phone service shifted from frustrating to frightening as Ashford found himself unable to communicate with a family member who had to evacuate and another who was defending his home from wildfire.

Ashford was just one of dozens of people who spoke to the Methow Valley News about AT&T’s failure during the state of emergency — and about the unsatisfactory responses from AT&T’s customer services representatives, who routinely dismissed valley residents’ complaints as groundless.

Gottula said he would be switching all electric co-op staff phones to Verizon as soon as the power company was done with emergency cleanup.

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Widespread frustration

For many, a mobile phone was the only means of communication to the outside world during the disaster. The valley’s two wireless phone carriers, AT&T and Verizon, both lost service during the power outage, but whereas Verizon was down for several hours before a backup generator was refueled, frustrated AT&T customers reported spotty or no service before, during and after the blackout.

Karen Reneau said she spent “countless hours” on the phone with AT&T “trying to get someone to our area to fix whatever is plaguing the towers and signal. They won’t even acknowledge there is a problem,” she said.

Others reported that AT&T was slow to learn about the problem, or seemed not to take it seriously.

Diane Childs was dismayed when she called to cancel her service and was told “to call this number or go to that website. I said, ‘You don’t understand, we have no phone or Internet.’ No one cared. No one seemed to listen when I said this was serious,” Childs said.

One AT&T customer service representative told a Winthrop-area resident on Wednesday (July 23) that she was “not seeing any service outages reported in your area.”

AT&T regional spokesman Andy Colley told the Methow Valley News via email on Thursday (July 24) that “we are aware of a service issue impacting some AT&T wireless customers in central Washington near Twisp, and we’re working to resolve it as quickly as possible.”

Colley added the following day, “This service issue is not power-related; rather, it is related to the third-party transport service that connects our Twisp-area cell sites to the network. Our technicians are working to deploy an alternate link to the impacted sites in order to restore service as quickly as possible. We apologize for this inconvenience.”

Meanwhile, a Verizon Wireless Disaster Response Team had set up a high-tech mobile trailer outside the Methow Valley Community Center where people can charge their own phones and laptops or use the on-site computers and phone service. The team handed out over 100 free phones to out-of-town firefighters and first responders whose mobile phones wouldn’t work in the valley, according to government accounts manager Paul Cox.

Cox said he expected the trailer would remain in Twisp until Aug. 7, open seven days a week, 8 a.m. — 8 p.m.

Jan Gregg, who lives between Winthrop and Mazama, said she was “pretty desperate to let my family know we were OK” on July 19 when both Verizon and AT&T were down for a time. Her daughter, who lives in the hills above Twisp, drove 45 minutes to let her mom know she was OK.

Gregg posted a sign on Highway 20 that said, “Will you make a cell call?” in hopes that a westbound motorist would make a call for her once they got over the mountains.

 “Desperate measures, but it worked,” Gregg said, grateful when Andy and Wes Hover stopped for her and made a call to her son Chad when they reached the west side.