Concerned residents overloaded the city's wildfire hotline as the Oak Knoll fire incinerated 11 houses Tuesday, leaving officials and residents frustrated by the communication breakdown and reminding them of similar problems during the Siskiyou fire nearly a year ago.
Residents who couldn't access the hotline, 541-552-2490, had difficulty finding official information on the fast-moving wildfire elsewhere, they said. The city's website was first updated with information on the fire at 6:19 p.m., when homes already were burning. Reception for the city's emergency radio station, 1700 AM, is spotty in south Ashland, where the fire raged on both sides of Interstate 5, near Exit 14.
"I was appalled," said Jan MacRae, who on Tuesday evening had been desperately trying to find out whether her 83-year-old mother, who lives in the 800 block of Oak Knoll Drive, had been evacuated. "No one knew anything. No one could tell me what was happening."
The issues that surfaced Tuesday were a grim reminder of communication breakdowns during the Siskiyou fire, which burned 190 acres and one home in Ashland's hills last September, many residents said.
Ashland Fire Chief John Karns said Wednesday he was aware there had been communication problems Tuesday, particularly with the hotline, and that he was working to address them.
"We're aware that that's a problem," he said. "We're aware of the fact that the public needs that information, and we're working to get it to them more efficiently."
Within the next two weeks, people should be able to listen to the emergency radio station on the city's website, www.ashland.or.us, Karns said. He hopes to have the new wildfire hotline and a mass notification system, commonly known as a reverse-911 system, installed by the end of the year.
Fire officials were unable to update the hotline for much of Tuesday evening because it cannot be updated while anyone is calling the number, Karns said.
He said the process to update the city's communication equipment has been slow because of limited funds and because the city has been researching the best options.
In the wake of the Siskiyou fire, many residents criticized the city for not disseminating information quickly. At that time, Karns said the city was working to update its wildfire hotline so it wouldn't become overwhelmed with calls. Last September, Karns also said the city was working to address other communication problems and was hoping to install a mass notification system.
Mayor John Stromberg said the city is working to address the issues as quickly as it can, with its limited funding.
"We're working on getting a different kind of system," he said. "Expectations now are such that the people want immediate information on what's going on, and sometimes that's not possible because the people with the good information are on the ground at the fire, but we're striving for that."
MacRae, who found her mother in the care of neighbors at about 9 p.m. after about four hours of searching, said the communication problems should be addressed immediately — before the next big fire.
"It was agonizing," she said. "I'm glad my mom got out OK, and I'm so thankful to the neighbors, but it does make me worry about the future."
Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-482-3456 ext. 226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.