How will you be alerted if a rapidly spreading wildfire hits East Pierce County?

August 28th, 2023


Graham Fire & Rescue Battalion Chief Mike Fortier says wildfires in Pierce County can grow so fast now that he worries about residents being able to leave their neighborhoods quick enough.

“Even in the city, nobody is immune from these fast-moving fires,” he said.

One way East Pierce County residents could get the alert to leave is through the lahar warning system — the sirens in place to sound the alarm in the event of a volcanic mudslide from Mount Rainier.

Emergency officials in Maui did not use the lahar system there to alert residents when catastrophic wildfires spread earlier this month, NPR and other news outlets reported.

Asked about how Pierce County’s system would or could be used in a wildfire emergency, Mike Halliday, spokesperson for the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management, said the lahar warning system was updated in 2020. That update included pre-recorded messages the county can broadcast in the event of flooding, wildfires, and earthquakes — not just lahars.

There are three organizations that can turn on that system: the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management, South Sound 911 and the Washington Emergency Management Division.

In the event of a rapidly spreading wildfire, the incident commander could call for the sirens to be activated.

Rapidly spreading wildfires can happen anywhere, and when someone does get a warning that they need to leave, Fortier said it’s important that they don’t hesitate.

“I’ve been in the fire service for 33 years now, and I haven’t seen anything like this,” he said.

The past 10 years, and five in particular, have brought wind-driven fires that take over quickly, Fortier said. “Now, over the last two to three years, we’re seeing it on a regular basis,” he said. “These winds tend to bring in more heat, which drops the relative humidity.”

Halliday said it’s important to understand that the lahar system is only one type of emergency alert the county could use.


Residents can also sign up for Pierce County Alert, a system that can call, email and text residents in specific areas of the county when there’s an emergency.

Halliday said they want residents to sign up, and for those already signed up to update their accounts regularly, to make sure the addresses are current. Residents can add multiple locations, to get alerts for where they live, where they work, and where their kids go to school, for instance.

“The system has more than 1 million contacts — both individuals and businesses,” Halliday said via email.

It’s hard to say how many individual residents that represents, he said.

More than 64,800 made an account. More than 479,000 contacts in the system came from a data collection service used by the company behind the alert software. And more than 32,700 texted PC ALERT to 888-777, which gives the county their number and ZIP code. (They’d rather you make an account online, so that they have better location information in the event of an emergency).

He also said there might be duplicates in there. For example, the system doesn’t know if the same person who texts 888-777 also creates an account online.

Another tool is the federal system that broadcasts Amber Alerts to cellphones when a child is missing, he said. It can also be used for other emergencies and can send messages to someone who is passing through an area.

Pierce County officials also try to go door-to-door during an emergency to tell residents to leave.

It’s often law enforcement officers going door-to-door, Fortier said, while fire crews are busy fighting the blaze.

“These fires take a lot of resources,” he said. “It’s hard to break our crews loose to go out and perform evacuations.”

Fortier helps with regional training to prepare fire crews for rapidly spreading wildfires.

He said local agencies have been training with one another to be ready to fight them together.

It’s important that residents remove yard waste and debris, keep gutters clean, and keep a greenbelt around their home, he said.

Brush fire season used to be in the summer, he said, but now seems to be almost year-round.

Emergency officials say it’s important residents have a plan for where they’d go if they had to evacuate. They also say it’s important to have a go-kit ready (possibly already in their vehicle), and a way to get pets in the car quickly and safely.

“These wind-driven fires grow extremely fast,” Fortier said. “It’s difficult to keep up with them.”

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