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City staff and councilors discuss the evacuation process used for the wildfires burning in Clackamas County

SCREENSHOT - Estacada City Councilors and employees hear from Clackamas Fire Chief Fred Charlton during a recent meeting on Zoom.

During a recent meeting, Estacada elected officials and city staff expressed concern about the efficacy of the communication process as citizens needed to evacuate amid the Riverside and Dowty Road fires.

In a city council meeting on Monday, Sept. 21, Mayor Sean Drinkwine said he had been in a tactical meeting during the heart of the wildfires, when leaders from the Oregon Department of Forestry, the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon State Police were discussing potential evacuations.

"ODF, who was in charge of calling an evacuation, in the middle of the meeting turned to me and says, 'Mayor Drinkwine, you are going to an evac three. You need to get your people out of there,'" Drinkwine said.

He noted that he passed that message to city staff, which he said was then "semi ignored."

"I don't mean to be mean in the way I put that," he added. "I notified (city staff) that we're in an evac three. That's the last I heard of it until the county came out and said it's an evac three, which was three hours later."

Estacada City Manager Denise Carey said staff were receiving conflicting information about the wildfires, which was why the level three evacuation notice was not immediately posted.

"Everyone was giving us information, and it wasn't all the same," she said. "It needs to be more clear who we're supposed to be looking at during these emergencies, so we need to look at our whole emergency system. I agree with the mayor. . .it didn't work this time."

City Council President Katy Dunsmuir pointed out that a message conflicting Drinkwine's update was posted to the city's Facebook page.

"I think part of what Mayor Drinkwine is saying is that even his own efforts to initiate an evacuation was undermined by the city staff," she said.

Assistant City Manager Melanie Wagner explained that she posted the update in question based on information from Clackamas County.

"I double checked the (county evacuation) map, which is where the information was coming from, and as far as I knew for the evacuations at that time, we were still at level two," she said.

Wagner added that the Sept. 10 Facebook post stating that firefighters had left Estacada — which was incorrect — was based on information from the county. During that time, firefighters remained in the city and took a tactical pause to determine the best way to contain the flames.

"It was a very distressing message to receive, knowing that there were still people in town that weren't the professional firefighters who had radios connected saying, 'Hey, you guys need to pull back,'" she said, apologizing for the concern it caused. "We were told at the time they were leaving Estacada which turned out not to be accurate ... If the fire had behaved in the way they were concerned it was going to, I'm afraid that all the volunteers out there who were trying to fight the fire would not have fared very well. It was a kind of a dire situation that afternoon, not knowing how the fire was going to behave."

Councilor Kimberlee Ables described communication as "one of our key takeaways from this."

"We need to make sure that whoever is the person that's posting to social media is (Mayor Drinkwine's) direct contact," she said. "I think there's a whole bunch of different ways we could have leveraged our communications channels and things that we should look at after the fact."

Drinkwine reiterated that "this is not not a blame game."

"This is a broken system," he said. "I want to try to fix it. I don't want to blame anybody. I don't want to make it anybody's issue, but I want us to get it right next time — if there is a next time, which I hope there never is."

In other news from the council meeting

  • Estacada resident Nicole Gardner-Austin asked if there was a source where all community members could find updates from Drinkwine. "You're the mayor, and they want to hear your comforting voice, and they want to know how you feel about the wildfires and all of the other issues that are going on," she said. "I'm trying to find a venue where that is available for all members of the community to access." Gardner-Austin was directed to the city of Estacada Facebook page, which is maintained by city staff.
  • Drinkwine asked officials from Clackamas Fire in attendance about the possibility of putting together a wildfire fighting crew with local loggers who have previously received fire training. "Unfortunately we had to go through this major disaster, but I think coming out of it, the lessons learned will help us build those relationships and understand where the resources are, and better utilize those resources in the future," said Clackamas Fire Chief Fred Charlton.
  • All councilors thanked those who have been involved with supporting Estacada during this time, ranging from residents who stayed behind to members of the Estacada Community Watch coordinating the relief center in front of the Cazadero Steakhouse.
  • Ables expressed gratitude to those involved with the relief center but encouraged them to take safety measures because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. "I really want to make sure that folks are taking all the precautions we can, because those folks coming through are going to be our most vulnerable populations. The more we can have folks wearing masks and preventing the spread of COVID-19, that's super important," she said. "The more we can ask for that and remind them of that, I think that's our duty, to protect the health and safety of our community."
  • Drinkwine thanked everyone who supported the community during this time. "I want nobody to ever forget what happened here, because I never will," he said. "I want to thank the city for everything that they did and the fact they all stuck together, and my downtown is still there."

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