On Monday July 31st, my family felt compelled to sit down and discuss our evacuation plan after witnessing the Hallett Fire that occurred off the Cheney-Spokane/Marshall Rd south of Spokane. How would we evacuate? What would we take or leave? How would we get out of our neighborhood? We thought we had a decent plan but less than three days later we were proven wrong.
Just prior to 2pm on Aug 3rd a brush fire was reported on the northside of Sunset and Rustle Rd. While outside getting the mail, I noticed a large plume of smoke and decided to investigate. A couple of us then headed out on our bikes and were surprised by a large tanker aircraft making a low pass. The plume of white smoke was building quickly just northwest of the Grandview neighborhood, which is where we live. Standing with several neighbors on a viewpoint overlooking I-90, we watched as trees in the Finch Arboretum ignited in flames. It felt like something you’d expect to see in a movie. As multiple aircraft continued dropping water and fire-retardant, we received the first Level 2 evacuation notice (be prepared to leave the area) on our cell phones.
But not all our family members received notification which was concerning. Had our neighbors been notified? It was decided we should split up; one person would check in with our elderly neighbor to the left and one would go to the neighbor on the right and make sure they were aware of the situation. We then received a phone call from our neighbor across the street. They had lost their home to a fire in May and are currently living in an apartment near Indian Canyon Golf Course. They had received a Level 3 evacuation notice (leave the area immediately) but had no way to leave because their car was in for repairs.
With our neighborhood at a Level 2, three members of our family started packing to evacuate while the fourth left to help our stranded neighbors. Our cell phones were flooded with texts and calls from neighbors sharing information and comparing the latest updates on the fire. We checked social media and the TV to get current information, but updates were not coming fast enough. After waiting for what seemed too long, one family member drove up the street to see what was happening and was met by a skateboarder alerting neighbors that the police had just informed him to evacuate, our neighborhood was now at a Level 3. We never received this notification on our cell phones, and numerous neighbors on our street had no idea there was a Level 2 let alone Level 3 evacuation for our neighborhood. Thankfully through texts, calls, and door knocking, the message got out.
We left our house with a few bags, three dogs and a goldfish, split between two cars. Our exit route was congested with others trying to evacuate so we got split up in the chaos. Thankfully we had decided to meet at Rosauer’s on 3rd Ave to re-group and were relieved when everyone arrived safely. Through another evacuee from the West Hills, we learned they had opened a shelter at Spokane Falls Community College, but traffic was at a standstill on Sunset Blvd in both directions and it wasn’t clear if Government Way was open. At 5:30 pm, we received notification via cell phones that the evacuation order had been lifted. We had to wait longer before we returned because the roads were still congested. The evacuation was over but, on the drive back home, we received the Level 3 evacuation notification from hours prior. The next morning, we received another Level 2 evacuation notice which apparently was made in error. The communication was confusing throughout the entire incident, which did nothing to minimize stress levels.
Driving back into our intact neighborhood and home, the feelings of gratitude and genuine appreciation washed over me for the amazing, coordinated effort of the folks in the air and on the ground who averted this disaster. They have my most sincere thanks.
Prior to that day, actual evacuation was only theoretical but all that changed on Aug 3rd. As our family reflected on that day, some things came to mind that might be helpful to others. Here is a list of suggestions that we came up with should a future evacuation be necessary:
1. Develop a family plan with multiple options. Think about the what if’s...you are an expert on where you live. 2. Develop community-get to know your neighbors! 3. Contact your neighborhood council and help put together a plan for your neighborhood. Identify residents that may need assistance. 4. Sign up for alerts with Spokane County Department of Emergency Management. 5. Follow Spokane News, the Fire Chief, and other Fire Districts on Facebook and Twitter. 6. Download real-time apps that track incidents and display maps like Watch Duty. Accurate and timely information is critical.
Besides our own preparedness and responsibility in these situations, we also know it’s not just about us and the residents of this area. Both the Hallett and Sunset fires occurred in an area called the WUI – Wildland/Urban Interface where structures like houses and residents intermingle with undeveloped wildland. This makes fighting fires even more challenging as typically these areas are heavily treed, have steeper terrain, and fewer roads for access and evacuation. Fast and efficient evacuation is paramount in these emergency situations. Spokane has many neighborhoods and areas that are in the WUI and are designated as extreme risk for wildfire. These fires from last week are no anomaly and we should expect to see more fires within our city. Were we just lucky to have these resources available or should we be asking some hard questions? Such as:
1. Are abundant resources guaranteed to be available like air support, fire fighters, police, and emergency responders. 2. What are the true risks for neighborhoods in Spokane with only one or two evacuation routes? 3. Are there neighborhood emergency response plans? (It now appears one third of our neighborhood never received prepare to evacuate or evacuate notices, and the only road out of the neighborhood for them was through a Level 3 evacuation area). 4. Is water infrastructure and water pressure adequate to handle wildfires in Spokane, especially the Latah Valley? 5. Are residents receiving notifications and communication effectively? 6. Does increased growth and development in areas of Spokane lacking adequate infrastructure to support current residents make sense?
For the Spokane community, we all have an important part to play. A high risk of wildfire and challenging evacuation scenarios exist within the city limits. Mitigating these risks and becoming a more resilient city will require a whole community approach. Collaboration between residents, Emergency Management, community leaders and neighborhoods will be essential to plan and prepare for future emergencies that threaten where we live.