Photo by Marcy Stamper
People on Vintin Road near Carlton were in the first group to be alerted about a fire in the immediate area. Firefighters stopped the fire’s progression on this hillside with a bulldozer line and retardant drops from planes.

Canyon Creek Fire alerts mostly — but not entirely — praised

By Marcy Stamper

At an informational meeting about the Canyon Creek Fire last week, a Carlton-area resident thanked Okanogan County for the alerts sent through its automated system. “It was incredibly helpful — the phone kept ringing till we got the message,” she said.

But in interviews after the meeting, others wondered why they hadn’t gotten calls even though they’d signed up for emergency notifications. And some thought the alerts came too late.

Events like the Canyon Creek Fire, which burned almost 1,200 acres between Carlton and Twisp last week, inevitably become a real-time test of how the system works. They’re also an opportunity for emergency managers and county residents to fine-tune the process.

Okanogan County Emergency Manager Maurice Goodall oversees the alerts, which he sends out for things like fires, mudslides and power outages.

Photo by Marcy Stamper
The Canyon Creek Fire burned trees and power poles and melted fences along Highway 153, prompting evacuations of people from south of Carlton to the Twisp town limits.

On Saturday, July 15, after hearing from dispatchers about a fire near Carlton, Goodall sent the first alert at 1:13 p.m., 55 minutes after the 911 report. The alert went to 74 contacts in the immediate vicinity of the fire, near Vintin Road and Texas Creek Road.

Goodall’s first notification was fairly general, since there were not many details and no information about where the fire was headed, he said. The alert told people to be aware of their surroundings and be prepared to evacuate — and not wait to be told to leave.

People sign up for the free county notifications by providing a prioritized list of up to 10 ways they want to receive alerts (landline, cell phone, text or email), and up to five locations they want to know about. The county also uses purchased lists of residential and business phone numbers and numbers from the 911 system, but these contacts are often not accurate, said Goodall.

To send an alert, Goodall defines the affected area and directs the system to notify everyone within that zone. As a result, people who didn’t ask to be notified about Carlton would not have received a call about the Canyon Creek Fire, he said.

The way the system works, it’s important to acknowledge that an alert has been received, said Goodall. While the software proceeds to new names on the list, it also keeps cycling back, making three repeated attempts to reach the others, and eventually that will slow the process, he said. “You can only do so many things with your brain — computers are the same way,” he said.

Alerts continue for up to two hours. After that, Goodall presumes the emergency will require an update. “Two hours is way too long for somebody to realize what’s going on,” he said.

Expanding alerts

As the fire grew on Saturday afternoon, Goodall sent two follow-up alerts. At 2:53 p.m., he sent detailed information about the growth of the fire. The alert added that Highway 153 had been closed and that power was out. It also described a predicted wind shift with the potential to accelerate fire spread and push the fire south.

The second alert went to a total of 455 people, from south of Carlton north to Benson Creek, on both sides of the Methow River.

Goodall sent the third alert at 5:12 p.m. to 943 people, with orders for everyone from Carlton to Benson Creek to evacuate immediately (a Level 3 evacuation) and for those from Benson Creek to Lower Beaver Creek to be ready to evacuate (Level 2). That alert went from the southern end of the Twisp town limits to even further south of Carlton.

The Everbridge software the county uses allows Goodall to see who was called, who was reached, how many were “unreachable” (outdated phone numbers or emails), and how many confirmed receipt of the message.

Of the first 74 contacts, only 16 confirmed receipt. In the second group of 455 people, 96 confirmed and 73 were not reachable. In the last group of 943 contacts, 229 confirmed and 167 were unreachable. Although the percentage who confirmed increased slightly by the third alert, it still was less than one-quarter of all who were notified.

Some residents have asked why the county doesn’t also send notifications when an evacuation order is lifted. Goodall said he typically lets people know when a Level 3 evacuation is reduced. But with the Canyon Creek Fire, the order for people to leave was in effect for several days, with the affected area shrinking in small increments, so it wasn’t practical to send an update for each one, he said.

Balancing act

In deciding who should receive an alert, Goodall strives to balance the need to notify those at immediate risk with alerting an overly broad area. People won’t listen to the details if the emergency doesn’t affect them directly, he said. And sending alerts too often can annoy people or be seen as “crying wolf,” he said.

Including too many people could also provoke widespread panic, generating its own emergency. “I ask myself, ‘Who needs to know?’” said Goodall.

For example, when a fatal collision closed Highway 153 a few weeks ago, Goodall elected not to send an alert, since a detour was available. And he wants to dissuade “lookie-loos” from descending on a scene and interfering with emergency responders.

While a handful of people complained that they hadn’t heard about the Canyon Creek Fire, others grumbled about getting too many phone calls, said Goodall. Some people apparently thought they were covering all the bases by entering the same phone number in every box when they signed up, he said.

Individuals with a cell phone need to list it twice if they want to get a call and a text, but entering a phone number repeatedly (for example, for a call, a fax, and the TTY system for the hearing impaired) means people will be pestered with multiple calls. “The system doesn’t differentiate — it thinks each is a new number,” said Goodall.

While the county’s alerts are one means of warning people about an emergency, the first line of defense is first responders on the scene, said Goodall. Police and firefighters go door to door to let people know if they need to evacuate, said Goodall. Firefighters decide the evacuation level and give it to Goodall to broadcast.

People can also hear alerts on local radio stations KTRT in Twisp and KOMW in Omak, which will interrupt programming with an emergency announcement. Alerts and other information are posted on the Emergency Management Facebook page and will also be put on the agency’s home page.


Evacuation numbers still confusing

Warnings about wildfires still use the 1, 2 and 3 evacuation levels, with level 1 meaning “be alert,” level 2 meaning “be ready,” and level 3 meaning “immediate evacuation.” But many people remain confused about which number is the most urgent, said Goodall.

Part of that confusion may be because the world of fires assigns opposite meanings to the numbers from organizations like the military, where level 1 is the most serious, he said.

Even with all the technology to provide alerts, “all in all, people need to take care of themselves and look out their door,” said Goodall.

“Level 3’s the highest, but the first alert is the most important,” he said. “That tells you where the fire’s at so you can make your own informed decisions.”


Get emergency alerts

Okanogan County Emergency Manager Maurice Goodall renewed his plea for everyone to sign up for the free alert system — and not to assume they are on the list just because they have received a call at some point. At present, 5,386 people self-registered, and Goodall signed up another 84 who needed assistance.

Everyone with his or her own phone should register, because people can be in different places when an emergency arises. People should periodically check their information to make sure it is up to date. “We don’t share data with anyone,” said Goodall.

The link to sign up online is at http://okanogandem.org. Anyone needing help with registration (including those who don’t have an email account, which is required to sign up online) should call Goodall at (509) 422-7206.

The Twisp Police Department also has an emergency-alert system called Nixle, which they department has used for about eight years. Registrations — still just a few dozen — grew after the wildfires in 2014 and 2015, said Vicki Hallowell, the town’s police safety clerk.

Twisp’s system will text a brief message or email more details. The system is used primarily for incidents within the town, but some messages go to everyone in the 98856 ZIP code, said Hallowell.

People can sign up online by following the link at www.townoftwisp.com or by calling 997-6112.