Sunshine Canyon fire on Dec. 19, 2022. Credit: John Herrick

The City of Boulder recently released a new evacuation mapping system called Zonehaven. On Dec. 19, that mapping system got its first test. It worked well — well enough to make the county’s system seem clunky.

In the middle of the day on Monday, a structure fire up Sunshine Canyon jumped from a home to wildland fuels. With the help of gusting winds and several weeks of no moisture, the blaze, named the Sunshine Wildland Fire, quickly grew to nearly 20 acres. Those living up the canyon were placed under mandatory evacuation orders, and some neighborhoods abutting the foothills in Boulder proper were placed on evacuation warning. 

But there was confusion about notifications and evacuation maps. Why were there so many different places to check for information?

The City of Boulder recently moved to Zonehaven, a “spacial awareness tool” that puts Boulder into a series of “zones.” These zones, roughly aligning to established neighborhoods, allow residents to watch real-time evacuation warnings come and go across the city. Enter your address, find your zone, and see how far you are from being evacuated. This theoretically gives Boulderites more time to prepare.

The county, however, is still using images taken from Google maps with evacuation zones indicated by red swaths. Road closures aren’t indicated — as they are on Zonehaven — and the map only updates when a new alert is sent. Mike Chard, director of the Office of Disaster Management for both the City of Boulder and Boulder County, said the Sunshine Wildland Fire furthered his desire to see the entire county “on one, forward facing mapping platform” — meaning Zonehaven.

“The city can make the decision and move onto [Zonehaven] pretty quick,” Chard said. That same tool implemented at the county level, however, requires getting every town, city and fire district on the same page. Still, Chard isn’t shying away from navigating those complications.

“I’d like to have [the entire county on Zonehaven] tomorrow,” he said. Chard added that he’s working with the aforementioned towns and fire districts for support while also searching for needed funding. “Hopefully we’ll have some final answers here in January,” he said. “And will hopefully be implementing it quickly after that.”

Marya Washburn, the public information officer for Boulder Fire-Rescue, said the city has been practicing on Zonehaven, but the Sunshine Wildland Fire was its first real-time use.

“We learned a lot,” she said. The biggest lesson was that in big incidents, the city will need a hub of people tasked solely with updating the platform. But overall, the “rapidity” of getting information to both the public and first responders “went so much more smoothly” than previous fires, like the NCAR fire.

Yet Zonehaven is not an alert system, it is a real-time evacuation map that provides additional information, like shelter locations. People are prompted to visit the site via alerts sent to their phones. But they have to first receive the alerts, often by signing up on the Everbridge website.

BRL talked to some living in the city’s “evacuation warning” neighborhoods who wondered why they hadn’t received evacuation alerts “like an Amber alert.” They didn’t, because they may not have signed up for Everbridge.

The state of Zonehaven at 3:15 p.m on Dec. 19.

Why didn’t I receive an alert?

Amber alerts arrive as a Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA). WEAs — operating under the umbrella of Integrated Public Alert and Warning Systems (IPAWS) — are FEMA’s alert system that uses cell phone towers to deliver “emergency and life-saving information.” You don’t have to sign up to receive WEAs, but they’re also only used in cases of “immediate threats to life and property.”

Because the western portion of Boulder proper was only under an evacuation warning, no WEA was sent to that area. Those living up Sunshine Canyon, however, should have received a WEA, as they lived in the mandatory evacuation area and were under a threat to their life and property.

Everbridge, unlike WEAs, is an opt-in system. To receive alerts, you have to go to the Everbridge website and enter the address you want to receive alerts for. Unlike WEAs, Everbridge alerts don’t operate based on your current location but rather the address entered on the site. So even if you were physically in the “evacuation warning” area, but didn’t have an Everbridge account with an address within those boundaries, you wouldn’t have received an alert.

So why doesn’t the city or county just send out WEAs to everyone with every evacuation update? Because, as Chard explained, that would “fatigue” residents with alerts.

“The concern is that we’re sending out the [wireless] emergency alerts, they go all over the county, and people get so many that they turn them off on their phone,” he said. “So we really want to make sure we’re just using WEAs for imminent life threat.”

To ensure you’re getting the latest alerts for your address, make sure to sign up for Everbridge alerts, which will often direct you to Zonehaven for additional information. 

Eventually, according to Washburn, Everbridge might not be necessary. Zonehaven is working on an application that will allow users to receive notifications whenever the status of a given zone changes — like your neighborhood being put on an evacuation advisory. That way, in our town that seems to be growing more prone to fire, you’ll give yourself the best chance of being ready for the worst.

Tim Drugan

Tim Drugan covers wildfires, water and other climate change-related issues for Boulder Reporting Lab with a focus on explanatory and solutions journalism. He also is the lead writer of BRL Today, our morning newsletter. Tim grew up in New Hampshire and graduated from UNH with a degree in English/Journalism.

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