Lessons we must learn from Butterfield Fire (Opinion)

Tanja Hester / Guest column
Tanja Hester

The first CodeRed message came at 11:58 a.m. — “This is the Truckee Police Department issuing an Evacuation Order for a Wildfire affecting zone TPD-E112; Evacuate immediately. Check for updates.” 

This was critical information that the community needed right away, as a newly-started fire was burning near the Truckee Airport, potentially threatening several neighborhoods. The problem? “TPD-E112” isn’t actually a zone in Truckee, there was no description of the geographic area impacted or map attached, and clicking the link in the message didn’t show where the evacuation zone was if you weren’t in Truckee at that moment or didn’t have location services/GPS activated on your phone.

Rumors quickly swirled that Glenshire was being evacuated, and people on multiple social media sites expressed confusion about whether they were in danger.

Fortunately, the incredible response of Truckee Fire and Cal Fire quickly got the wildfire under control, and we can now take a step back and assess the ways the emergency response agencies can communicate better. It’s essential to the public safety in our wildfire-prone area that we get it right next time. Here are some key lessons Truckee’s Town leadership and EMS agencies must take from the Butterfield Fire experience:

— More information is crucial. In addition to fixing the typo in the initial message (the actual zone is “TPK-E112,” which they corrected via a new message a half hour later), the message should have included some geographical indicators like, “zone TPK-E112, the area between the Truckee Airport and the Truckee River, between Olympic Heights and Glenshire.” Even better would be to describe the area and attach a map, as TPD did in its 3:59 p.m. message shrinking the evacuation zone. Better still would be to include details like, “No threat to other areas at this time,” or “The fire could travel east and threaten Glenshire, so residents should prepare to leave via Interstate 80 if necessary.” Because the text message alerts from CodeRed often do not include photo attachments, the area descriptions are the most important piece of this.

— Emergency response should communicate through every channel available. While the CodeRed messages went out quickly, Truckee Fire and Truckee Police didn’t post anything about the fire on Twitter until almost 2 p.m., more than two hours after the evacuation order went out. Not everyone is on Facebook, where Truckee PD shared information earlier, and residents reported on social media that they had signed up for CodeRed and still did not get the messages. It’s essential that Truckee’s EMS agencies use every channel available, and do so quickly, to reach as many people as possible.

— Messages must not rely on links. For many residents, the link attached to the evacuation order did not provide the intended information of what area had to evacuate, and that’s a problem. For example, on my phone, clicking the link showed a zone near San Jose, in the Bay Area. While every resident in the area should make note of your zone so you don’t have to look it up in an emergency situation, critical messages also should not rely on links that assume, one, you have good internet at a time when electricity and internet may be cut off because of wildfire danger, two, are at home in Truckee, and three, have GPS active on your phone.

— Continuous outreach is important. While residents who had previously signed up for Nixle alerts knew of the switch to CodeRed, many newer residents had never heard of either and didn’t get any evacuation alerts. The Town of Truckee should make its outreach about the CodeRed system ongoing, and educate via mail to residents and signs in neighborhoods, not just through online channels, ensuring that all outreach materials include Spanish-language translations.

When a wildfire is in the critical stages, Truckee residents should expect that our local emergency response personnel will be more focused on dealing with the threat than with communicating about it. But we’re lucky that the Butterfield Fire did not turn out to be worse so that we could learn important lessons from it on how to improve emergency communications, rather than learning those lessons the much harder way when more lives are in danger.

Tanja Hester lives in Truckee and is an activist, author and former political consultant. Visit her website at

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