Communication Lessons Learned from the 2015 Washington State Wildfires

Submitted By

Angela Seydel
Washington Region 8 Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response, Washington
November 30, 2015

“If this was back East and everything from New York to Washington D.C. was burning, maybe people would realize the magnitude of destruction we’re talking about here.” Firefighter comment in the Okanogan County Emergency Management Emergency Operations Center, August 2015.

Walking into the Benton-Franklin Health District building on August 18th, I stopped to take a picture of the rising sun, red and hazy in the smoky air. Lightning over the weekend had started many fires in North Central Washington. A few hours later I was on my way to the source, nearly 200 miles away, assisting as a Public Information Officer for the Okanogan County Emergency Management Emergency Operations Center to tell people what they needed to do to protect themselves and their loved ones as the fires exploded and raged.

It has been a horrific fire season throughout the west. Extreme drought combined with a huge fuel load has led to fires that burn hotter, faster, and with behaviors experienced firefighters say they have never seen before. Several years ago Washington State recognized that emergency management offices throughout the state often need assistance during major events in their counties. The Washington Mutual Aid System was formed to allow different government organizations to share qualified resources quickly and easily. With a number of lightning-started fires growing exponentially and threatening towns, businesses, and people, Okanogan County EM asked for help. Usually a Regional Learning Specialist with Region 8 Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response in Kennewick, Washington, I spent seven days in Okanogan, answering media calls, posting to social media, working with the Call Center, briefing spokespeople, attending community meetings, coordinating focused outreach, and facilitating relationships between the variety of organizations involved in fire support.

So where does Public Health fit with fires? We know people. We recognize the societal and individual needs and limitations in a different way because of the work we do in our communities every day. The role of Emergency Management in our counties is to coordinate resources in response to a situation. But unlike the Incident Management Teams that direct the fighting of the fire, Emergency Management is focused on the people and community needs. Our work in Risk Communication and Emergency Preparedness and Response helps us bridge communication gaps between the response community and residents.

There are three levels of evacuation notices. Level One means that there is a hazard in your area of which you need to be aware. You. Personally. When I arrived in Okanogan County, the entire county was under at least a Level One evacuation notice. Okanogan County is a vast rural area larger than many eastern states, with many small communities. At Level One, our message was to be aware of your surroundings and your evacuation routes. We tried to keep all of our messaging very personal and direct. I spent time getting to know our partners and the community.

A Level Two notice means that you need to get prepared to leave. Pack. Gather important belongings and papers; supplies for animals. Here we added another request: check on your neighbors. The call center received many local and out of town calls from people concerned about friends and family who might not have the means or ability to evacuate themselves. The reality is that there are rarely enough resources, especially towards the beginning of any disaster, for there to be official notification to every individual impacted. Being upfront about that limitation is important. Otherwise people expect that they “don’t really have to leave” until someone knocks on the door. That is often too late, or may not happen at all.

Some evacuation shelters began reporting that there were people who needed assistance with activities of daily living. At one point, an evacuation shelter had to be moved to another town. Hundreds of large and small farm animals were housed at four different locations. A pet shelter opened next to one of the evacuation shelters. We reminded people to bring supplies for pets but our first material donations request from an organization was for pet food, crates, and leashes. We began posting the National Disaster Distress Helpline (1-800-985-5990) and a check with them found that people were calling from our area.

At Level Three, you are in danger. You must leave for your own safety and the safety of the firefighters. As I explained to one Seattle radio station, we can’t make people leave their homes. In the end, your health and safety is up to you and the choices you make. Again, I think we in Public Health understand that better than most. We can share information, but we can’t make a person follow it. Clear, direct messages of what to do, how to do it, and to do it now went out on a regular basis through a direct communication system (Everbridge) and social media. The tone would vary depending on the person assigned to social media, even as we tried to keep consistency – and so feedback would vary too. Being personal invites the individual questions and interactions that lead to people following the directions given. More than once I spoke with people who had been evacuated, were considering going home, and decided to stay out of the active fire area because they had seen another message reinforcing the need to remain in a safe place.

We were fortunate to have a Public Health employee and her husband, both licensed and certified interpreters, available to staff a Spanish language direct phone line in the Call Center and post to the Spanish language Facebook page we established. To publicize their availability, we printed 600 flyers for distribution throughout the county. The flyer was distributed electronically through agricultural and ranching organizations. There are thousands of migrant workers in the orchards and fields of the county, and their safety was a priority.

This was the second year in a row that Okanogan County experienced “the largest fire in Washington State History.” The first year they had to spend tens of thousands of dollars disposing of useless donations long after the fires burned out. Recognizing that people really do want to help, we tried to get ahead of the donation stream this year by telling people outside the area that their support was appreciated and if they wanted to give, to give money. A local non-profit was established last year specifically to take donations for recovery, and was quickly involved and referenced. Despite this, within days people were calling to say that they had gathered truckloads of different things and were heading to town. They were very angry and hurt to be asked to wait. This year private groups are managing the material donations received. And as the fires went on there were some specific materials needs requested. This is a disaster message that is going to take time for people to understand and accept.

In effect we were communicating with an entire state and all of the differences in people that go along with such a vast area. Complicating matters were power outages, road closures, and limited cell service. Fortunately Okanogan County is largely made up of independent, resilient people, and most understand that the cost of life in a majestic location is personal responsibility for their own safety. To take that responsibility, they need clear, consistent messaging from a trusted source. I appreciate that I had the opportunity to help provide that information.

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