First responders have been responding to wildfires across the West Coast in recent weeks.  To learn about the roles of law enforcement agencies in this crisis, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with four police executives: Eureka Chief Steve Watson and Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal in Northern California; Pasadena Commander Mark Goodman in Southern California; and Multnomah County Sheriff Michael Reese in Oregon.


Key Takeaways

-- Interagency coordination is crucial. Responding to these fires and coordinating evacuations can easily overwhelm an agency’s resources. Law enforcement agencies are relying on mutual aid from other agencies and are coordinating with local fire departments.

-- Communications are a challenge. In rural areas, it can be hard to reach people to tell them they must evacuate. And public safety professionals everywhere must keep people informed and prepared without inciting panic.

-- Evacuees are a concern in some areas. Communities that have not been directly impacted by the fires still might see an influx of evacuees from areas that have been hard hit. Providing safe and secure shelter during a pandemic can be challenging.

-- Agencies need to look out for employees’ wellness. Police departments and sheriffs’ offices must look out for the physical safety of personnel and their families during these wildfires. They also must support employees’ mental well-being, particularly because the stress of the fires is compounding the other stressors they have faced this year with COVID-19 response and demonstrations.


Eureka, CA Chief Steve Watson

Humboldt County is the second-most northern county in California on the coast. We have a large rural area that not very populated. The whole county population is a little over 130,000. Eureka is the county seat, with the center of government, the major hospital, the main sheriff’s office station, and a lot of the resources.

The level of impact on Eureka PD isn’t nearly as high as it’s been on the sheriff’s office. Air quality was a major factor for about a week, and still is a little bit. Last Wednesday it literally looked like something from an apocalypse all day just because we’re sandwiched between some fires. It was dark, almost like it was dusk, orange sky, and ash falling. 

Photo: Chief Steve Watson

Probably the biggest issue we’re seeing in Eureka specifically is an influx of evacuees from the northern region of California and probably southern Oregon. The director of our Emergency Operations Center referred to them as “climate refugees.” Last year when we had the Camp Fire we also saw refugees come into town. The Humboldt Bay area has become a destination for wildfire evacuees in part because we’re on the coast and it’s a little cooler. We do have fires to our north and southeast.

Hotels have filled up. We’ve seen some camping in vehicles on the streets, but not an uncontrollable number. And we have a couple local fairgrounds where refugees are going. As you set up these evacuation centers in a COVID world, the mass congregation model that’s typically used doesn’t work. You have to think about spreading out the evacuees so that you can still maintain COVID precautions. That poses a big challenge.

Chuck Wexler: How is this impacting your personnel?

Chief Watson: This has obviously been a crazy year. It almost feels like we’re living through a series of Biblical plagues. The COVID pandemic impacted people’s homes and professional lives, as did the resulting economic devastation. You throw in the unprecedented nationwide civil unrest. We also had a tragic officer-involved shooting a couple months ago. And now you have the impacts of the wildfires. It’s certainly a lot to take on, and the year is not nearly over yet.

At the same time, I think our emphasis on employee wellness and resilience and our partnerships with other agencies have been very important for officers to hold the trust and be able to continue doing the job we have to do.

So overall I think morale is doing pretty well, given what we’ve faced. But it is challenging, and it’s been very hard on families of our public safety officers. They’re carrying a lot of extra stress and worry.


Humboldt County, CA Sheriff William Honsal

Humboldt County is almost the size of Connecticut, and we have a population of about 135,000. It is mostly rural. Wildfires in California have impacted every county north of San Francisco, so we are all dealing with this emergency.

One of the biggest challenges with rural law enforcement during wildfire season is mass notifications and mass evacuations. How do we get communications from our fire entities – Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service – in a timely manner to our rural areas through a mass notification? We’re talking about many areas that aren’t covered by cell service or even landlines. People are living completely off the grid. That creates a challenge. With new technology, people have gotten away from purchasing weather radios that come on with the wireless emergency alert systems. That has been a huge challenge for us.

Once we push the “big red button” for an evacuation, how do we evacuate in a timely manner when we have a 4,000-square mile county with rural roads?  In urban jurisdictions there are block ranges and people are very accessible. In rural counties, you have people who live five miles off a dirt road and there may be several locked gates. So we cannot get to their residence to properly evacuate them.

One thing we are looking at is changing alert tones on our emergency response vehicles. Those vehicles have different sirens, and we’ve gotten away from the two-tone European-style siren. In northern California we’re bringing back that high-low siren as an alert for evacuation purposes. That has been integrated in a lot of our northern California jurisdictions as a signal to evacuate, because that sound can travel and people can hear it from a distance, as opposed to a muffled PA.

Another challenge is getting together with our fire agencies as a unified command to train our personnel on mass evacuations. The issue comes with getting a message out to our people and getting a message to our deputies that is properly relayed. Who should evacuate? What are the evacuation routes? And where should they go? You have to steer people somewhere, especially those who don’t have relatives where they can go, or who need immediate care, or have sheltering issues. Life safety is important, but once they’re free and clear of the emergency area, we have to provide for their needs.

Lack of resources is always a huge issue. Right now on a good day we have 12 deputies to serve the entire county. We may have two or three deputies in a 1,500 square mile area. Force multipliers, such as reaching out to the city of Eureka for assistance in rural areas, can lead to other challenges, because there often aren’t proper road signs, markers, or address locations. But we have a great mutual aid partnership with all our jurisdictions. We rely on that, and that’s the only way that we can make this work.


Pasadena, CA Commander Mark Goodman

The city of Pasadena is about 24 square miles, 10 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Right now the biggest threat to our city is the Bobcat Fire. As of this morning, that fire is just over 44,000 acres and about 3% contained. There are two cities directly to the east of us, and those cities have a limited evacuation order in certain geographical areas. We do not have evacuation orders yet.

The biggest impact on our community right now is the air quality. Air quality here ranges from marginal to very poor. We saw apocalyptic skies, similar to those seen in northern California, a couple days ago. It looked like it was an overcast winter day outside because of the ash and smoke in the air. That’s adversely affecting the air quality and the quality of life for the region.

A few of our personnel are near the evacuation zones in neighboring cities, but their families are safe and they have not been evacuated yet. If need be, our agency will respond to assist them. Over the weekend we were staged with our personal trucks and vehicles to respond to the houses of our colleagues if necessary to make sure they stay safe.

We have implemented a comprehensive Incident Action Plan (IAP) to deal with evacuations, if they become necessary, and the resulting consequences. Our IAP includes other city departments that may be impacted, including public works, water and power, and the fire department, which will be taking the lead.

We have identified a police and fire joint command post location. We’ve also identified a large evacuation site for anyone who may be evacuated. One positive unintended consequence of COVID is that one of our local junior colleges is not in session with in-person classes, so the campus is available as an evacuation site and will allow for plenty of social distancing.

Our city has a comprehensive communications platform with our community members and with the surrounding communities. Our community members are very connected to our city, so we haven’t had too many issues with communicating. The issue is making sure the information we’re putting out is accurate and doesn’t cause panic. Our PIO will typically put out a couple updates throughout the day to reassure people that we’re still fine in Pasadena, but we stress the importance of staying ready, having a plan, and being able to go if the evacuation order happens.

If we do get an evacuation order, we’ll have to deal with force protection for the residences that will be vacant. We have a plan for that as part of our Incident Action Plan. We will do crime prevention, and ensuring public safety will, of course, be our highest priority. We’ll use our traffic section to ensure ingress for fire apparatus and egress for community members.

Wexler: How does this impact your employees?

Commander Goodman: In terms of their housing, there’s no impact right now. But in terms of morale, particularly with everything else impacting policing right now, we need to tune out the noise. There’s a lot of noise right now from the media. In southern California there have been several officer-involved shootings. Two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies were just ambushed and nearly killed. We had a controversial shooting that we’re dealing with.

We have a comprehensive wellness culture in our department. Many places have wellness programs, but I like to say we have a wellness culture. We want our people to talk to one another. We have a peer support team with very good people who are well-trained. Our personnel have no issues with speaking with one another, and I think that’s a healthy thing. Morale is holding steady. We just don’t like the smoky environment.


Multnomah County, OR Sheriff Michael Reese

I think it’s important for folks to realize that a lot of our Western states are forestland. Northern California, Oregon, and Washington have a lot of state and federal forest land. We have three large fires in the northern part of Oregon right now. They’ve almost all merged.

Portland is a metropolitan area of 2.5 million people. It has an urban growth boundary that forces growth inside the boundary. So outside that boundary, you have forest and farm land that abuts major metropolitan areas.

The fires are really impacting the entire Portland area. I look out my window, and visibility is under half a mile. It was down to a quarter mile two days ago. It looks like a heavy, dense fog, but it is smoke and it’s blanketing almost the entire state of Oregon right now. Our air quality in Portland was the worst of any city in the world a couple days ago. I think yesterday we were ranked second. It is hazardous to your health to be outdoors breathing the air.

There’s a lot of anxiety in our community, first and foremost from the pandemic, and the protests that have turned very violent here in the Portland area. Now layer on top of that the fires. Our neighboring county to the south, Clackamas County, has a large fire that is about 135,000 acres. A lot of people who work in Portland live in Clackamas County, so they’re impacted.

Statewide about 50,000 people have been evacuated from their homes. That’s a huge population to find shelter for, especially in a pandemic. You want to put people in safe shelter and not exacerbate the health situation.

The smoke from the wildfires is impacting people’s health, particularly during a pandemic, when people are already focused on respiratory issues.

We had a large fire three years ago that burned right next to the Portland area, so we were well-prepared for this event. Evacuations were well-handled by the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office. We assisted with patrolling neighborhoods in Clackamas County to prevent looting.

We had some citizens who took matters into their own hands, with armed patrols blocking roads. There was social media misinformation that Antifa or alt-right members had started the fires, which wasn’t true. Citizen patrols set up checkpoints, which we quickly discouraged. They were doing roadblocks and checking people’s identification. We told them they were facing arrest or citation if they continued that activity, and that we had lots of deputy sheriffs working patrol in that area. We tried to get people to let us do the law enforcement and be eyes and ears for us, not engage in illegal behavior like citizen patrols.

The evacuations have definitely impacted our employees. A lot of our folks live in areas that were evacuated. We’ve had employees who have lost homes in the fires. We’ve been doing everything we can to provide support to our employees during this time.

Wexler: Have these fires impacted the protests in Portland?

Sheriff Reese: We’ve had over 100 nights of protests, and recently they’ve become very violent with fires set. I think that’s some of the reason there’s social media misinformation about Antifa setting fires, because they like to do that here at protests.

The protests have diminished greatly. Last night and the night before were the first nights we haven’t had protests since May 27. We had a small protest Saturday at one of our correctional facilities. It was a peaceful event, we had a good dialogue with the protesters, and they protested for about an hour and left. So it has helped in calming the violent protests that have been occurring in the city of Portland.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.