Warm Springs Mesa residents test new emergency alert system
Some residents of Boise’s Warm Springs Mesa neighborhood received an emergency alert test notification last weekend via a public alert system called CodeRED. The system delivers geolocated information from local emergency management agencies via text, email, phone call, or in a smartphone app.
In 'the Mesa,' as it's known, the system is the latest step to improve the community's response and communication in the event of a wildfire, or other emergency, as the memory of the Table Rock fire is still fresh.
Many residents had already called it a night when a 20-year-old named Taylor Kemp lit off a roman candle firework the evening of June 29, 2016.
"It was after midnight, probably about 12:20," said long-time resident and neighborhood association board member Tom Burns. "A neighbor knocked on my door and said, 'Tom, there's a fire.'"
The fire burned approximately 2,600 acres, destroyed one home and came close to dozens more in the Mesa, a neighborhood of around 3,000 people in more than 600 residences. It butts up against Table Rock to the north, and open space in the Boise Foothills to the east and northwest. Most of the surrounding land is privately owned.
On that night nearly six years ago, residents like Burns and his wife drove through, honking horns and knocking on doors to alert their neighbors.
"I think the most potent moment was probably when Donna was knocking on a door, she heard a voice yelling from behind the door, 'Honey, do I need to get my gun?'" Burns explained.
Residents could see the glow of the fire and the first responder activity in the neighborhood. But few, if any, had a clear picture of what was going on or whether it was safe to stay.
Kellee Adams is the neighborhood association's vice president and one of three on the Mesa's firewise team. She was home with her husband and two young children during the fire and felt surrounded.
"There was no information, we were like, 'What do you do?' All these people were driving around honking and knocking on doors because there's no communication coming from anywhere," she said.
Her husband drove up to the top of the hill and spoke to someone from the Boise Fire Department who said not to leave.
"So we kind of just gathered our stuff, put it in the car and just be ready to leave," Adams said.
Other residents left on their own or received different advice.
Responding police told some people they should evacuate their homes. Boise Fire did not tell people to evacuate. Department Wildfire Division Chief Tony Piscopo said state code is part of that confusion.
"Within the State of Idaho, there is no uniform evacuation model or policy or authority," he said. "Only the governor can mandate an evacuation."
Piscopo said a more universal response plan for the entire state would be helpful to first responders. Currently, he's trying to work with entities in Ada County to coordinate response plans.
Even if a more uniform plan exists, evacuation recommendations first responders could issue are tricky. The notice might come too late to save everyone, while others might be frustrated because they don’t think they need to leave at all.
Piscopo, who managed fires and other emergency events in Colorado, called the decision to evacuate incredibly complex. It can create just as much harm as good when things don't go right.
The way public agencies responded to the Table Rock fire was extensively reviewed and both Piscopo and Mesa residents said they were pleased with the progress made in the years since.
The Mesa already had fire preparation and planning efforts, but Burns said the area’s unique layout - surrounded on three sides by open space - requires a unique response plan.
"We want to move to a conversation where micro-areas that have urgent or descriptive differences are treated in that manner," Burns explains, noting the distinct ecological differences between the valley floor and the foothills.
He said a request from the neighborhood association in the years after the fire to install a warning siren on the hill was denied by the county.
Saturday's localized test of the CodeRED alert system is one step toward a more distinct plan. The system is already in use across the United States and in Idaho. Last summer, for example, first responders triggered an alert when chlorine gas leaked at a Boise pool.
Officials were very happy with the codeRED system that day, as they shared with Boise television station KIVI.
Alerts go out as a text message, email or phone call with a normal ringtone. Residents have to opt-in to receive notifications, and the phone has to be turned on.
Boise Fire said Saturday’s test in the Mesa reached around 1,200 devices. That likely includes some overlap for people who registered multiple contact methods.
Signing up for alerts is the obvious first step, but it's far from the last for residents in 'Wildfire Urban Interface' neighborhoods called WUIs. Knowing what to do next is even more important said current Warm Springs Mesa Neighborhood Association President Randy Broesch.
"If you get that warning, you're not scared of what it means. It's just information saying like, 'Hey, we're ready. We're in stage two, we're set.' And then get that final go. And we just don't want a mass panic when that when that communication comes out there," he said.
Broesch said the Mesa is also working to develop small groups of residents - he called them pods - who know where a neighbor’s gas shutoff is, how many pets live in a house or who might need extra help in an emergency.
All this is in addition to defensible space education efforts underway on the Mesa for decades. The neighborhood’s Firewise team regularly consults with Boise Fire to help homeowners identify flammable vegetation increasing the fire risk to their property.
"We have a lot of junipers and cypresses and stuff that's very flammable up right up to houses," Broesch said. "I don't want people offended when I knock on their door and be like, 'Hey, how can we help, you know, here? Have you thought about using rock instead of malts on your on your property?'"
And the city of Boise’s free chipper helped more than a dozen homeowners clear branches and debris this spring; a free service made available in the city’s multiple WUI areas.
Educating homeowners and residents is an ongoing process, and continues as more homes are built and more people move into the neighborhood. Since July 1, 2016, Boise Regional Realtors identified 84 new and existing homes sold at least once in Warm Springs Mesa. That suggests more than 10% of current residents didn't experience the Table Rock fire as homeowners.
Piscopo said the city’s emergency management groups are still establishing best practices for using public alerts, but codeRED won’t be the only alert system used to notify the public in urgent situations. His best advice for any emergency: "Don't ever wait for someone to tell you to leave. If you feel that your life or your property or is in danger, you should take the appropriate steps to get out of the area and evacuate yourself."
He added that expanding the use of codeRED or other public alerts isn’t only about evacuations, it’s about information and preparedness so residents can make the most informed decisions possible.
Officials urge anyone seeking information or advice on living in a WUI area visit adafireadapted.org.
Residents interested in signing up for codeRED alerts can visit the program's Ada County Sheriff's website.