BANDON — A fire on North Bank Lane that charred 350 acres, destroying one structure and damaging a barn's roof and another structure was a challenge for firefighters, who now have that blaze 30% contained with no additional structures threatened.
But another challenge emerged as the fire grew Tuesday afternoon into Wednesday, adding a strange hue to the smoke-filled air along the South Coast as Bandon residents worried the fire might jump the Coquille River and head into town. Facebook posts warned the fire had jumped the river, and that homes were burning.
Residents recalled that the low humidity and high winds were much like the conditions when a fire burned the town of Bandon on Sept. 26, 1936. That fire started up Bear Creek Road, just off Highway 42S, across the river but not far from Tuesday's North Bank Lane fire.
The secondary challenge became where could people get accurate information? And how would they be notified if they had to evacuate? The public information officer for Coos Forest Protective Association was on scene fighting the fire and a temporary PIO had not been assigned to respond to the public's inquiries until Wednesday afternoon. The CFPA phone lines were continually ringing, as were the county's emergency 911 system.
The World and Bandon Western World reporters were posting updates as they could get them, with comprehensive stories posted on their website and social media pages, and people did rely on those stories. But the paper's information was only updated with official statements after a CFPA PIO was appointed.
At one point, the Coos County Sheriff's Office sent out notifications to the press and posted on social media asking residents not to call 911, but to sign up for emergency notifications from Everbridge (sign up at: https://member.everbridge.net/index/892807736724057#/signup).
Bandon City Manager Dan Chandler was getting updated information from Bandon Police Chief Bob Webb and posting on the city's official Facebook page.
But people were concerned about other anecdotal reports on Facebook that contradicted official posts.
"Every place I've been, (public information) in an emergency has been a county function," Chandler said Thursday afternoon.
The county didn't take over the PIO function for the North Bank Lane fire. If the fire had been larger, a command center would have been set up, but because of its relatively small size, that didn't happen.
Chandler said after receiving multiple negative comments via email and on the city's Facebook page about how the information was disseminated, the city will be working with Coos County on how they can piggyback on the Everbridge notifications that can be directed geographically. Though the city was never in danger, residents still were not sure where to turn for accurate information. The entire county didn't need to know, just Bandon area residents.
With 85% of the populace owning mobile devices, a phone notification system makes sense, Chandler said.
"We are going to look at the best option for the city of Bandon," Chandler said. "I got emails about the Facebook page and five months ago we din't even have that. This was a learning experience."
Chandler added that some of the Facebook posts on the city's page reached thousands of people. The city will explore multiple channels of outreach for any future emergencies, though funding is always an issue.
"You're never going to reach every single person," he said. "But I agree we do need more communication vehicles."
Mayor Mary Schamehorn was also concerned about the lack of factual information that was coming out of the North Bank Lane fire on Tuesday.
"Our city manager routinely posted on the city's Facebook page with whatever information he could glean from our police chief, who was helping to direct traffic, or from a CB radio operator out of Gold Beach," Schamehorn said.
"In situations like this, the Coos County Sheriff needs to appoint a Public Information Officer, who will be on site and provide other agencies and the public with the latest information about possible evacuations, etc., every hour or so," the mayor added. "If that information had been forthcoming, it would have immediately been posted to our Facebook page. As it was, our city manager posted right up to 3 a.m. with the information that he was able to obtain."
As in the case of many areas around the state, the fires were so fast moving that people barely had time to evacuate, and in many cases did not receive an official warning, but they knew instinctively when it was time to go, Schamehorn noted.
"We need to look out for the safety of our own families, as well as for each other, in the time of a crisis like we experienced this week just miles from our city limits," Schamhorn said. "Whether we live inside the city limits or outside, we are all Bandonians."
Those affected directly by the fire were notified door-to-door by police officers or sheriff's deputies. If residents in the greater Bandon area need to be evacuated, the city will use its tsunami warning notification system, which blares a siren and also has a microphone so specific instructions can be broadcast over the speakers. There are several tsunami sirens located throughout town.
Chandler said the city has actively been revising its emergency plan, with a staff member working on those revisions over the past six months. When complete, that revised plan will be presented to the Planning Commission and City Council for discussion and adoption. There are also emergency groups, such as BandonPrepares and the Citizen Emergency Response Team that are actively working to help with preparedness, which includes notifications and information about evacuations.
"We are a poorly resourced area but I do know there's a lesson to be learned and we're going to find more ways to communication with people," Chandler said.