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Parleys Canyon Fire Evacuation Orders Delivered in English Only, Confusing Spanish Speakers

Ben Lasseter

Summit County has never experienced an event like last Saturday’s. Within an hour of the Parleys Canyon Fire first being reported, plainclothes off-duty Sheriff’s deputies raced door to door telling people to gather essential belongings and leave their homes. But evacuation information was not shared equally throughout the community.

As deputies alerted residents in Timberline and Pinebrook, the same system that sends Amber alerts by phone also notified residents. That text, which was a coordinated effort by law enforcement and the county’s emergency response office, was only sent in English.

That left Spanish-speaking residents without clear information. Lt. Andrew Wright with the Summit County Sheriff’s office said that was a wake-up call.

“I’ve been talking to a lot of my colleagues that have been in this business far longer than I have," Wright said. We have never dealt with something of this magnitude - when this was all said and done and we all huddle together and have a kind of a debriefing and, and really critique the response, there are a lot of things that we can do to communicate better to make sure that we are considering getting transportation in especially for the high density areas. I believe we have a responsibility to have these plans in place and really make sure that we are serving all members of our community equally.”

The Elk Meadows apartments in lower Pinebrook were the farthest point geographically from the fire’s origin to fall under the evacuation order. The great majority of residents don’t speak English. Residents received conflicting reports about what to do.

As neighborhoods began evacuating, Elk Meadows residents contacted the Park City Community Foundation and other service agencies for help.

A network of bilingual volunteers grew through the afternoon. Enrique Sanchez, a community specialist with the Park City Police Department and the city, said he was contacted by the community foundation and quickly started alerting Spanish speakers through his Municipio de Park City Facebook page.   Jose Borjon, the head consul of Mexico for the state of Utah, began translating Tweets and shared them with Spanish language media.

Wright said Sanchez texted him Saturday, saying Elk Meadows residents were confused. They received notice that their complex was under evacuation, but that they should not leave. Wright asked Sanchez to tell residents they did not need to evacuate yet and they would be notified if that changed.

“I immediately just kind of acted based on what I was able to do with my position at the city, which was to provide that information because we have a big following of Hispanic residents and you know, just people in the greater Park City area," Sanchez said. "And our posts were shared by several of those Hispanic families.”

Wright told KPCW that directions from the Sheriff’s office to Elk Meadows residents were based on location relative to the fire and other neighborhoods.

The Sheriff’s office also utilized Park City police officer Franco Libertini, who addressed Spanish speakers on KPCW’s Spanish language program  Cada Domingo on Sunday night. Bilingual volunteers shared messages on social media from law enforcement, local media, non-profit groups and the Park City School District.

But the county needs to do a better job of communicating with Spanish speakers, Wright said.

“We have Spanish speakers within the Sheriff's office. We try to recruit Spanish speakers to work for us," Wright said. "They're not always available. They're not always on shift for obviously, a variety of reasons. We need to have a better system in place where we can communicate, whether it's through text messaging, whether it's a mass email, or if it's directly going to the property management and say, hey, listen, here's what we need to communicate to all of the residents of elk Meadows.”

Borjon, the consul of Mexico, agreed.

“It's important for people to continue to understand how immigrant communities are usually disenfranchised, and in many situations and emergency, they are even more vulnerable because of the fear they may have of contacting law enforcement on or being contacted by law enforcement," Borjon said. "But regardless, we have a community to reinforce the message that they are all under the protection of personnel who are committed to their safety and well being in especially in an emergency.”

Among the changes that could be put into place immediately is a bilingual alert system for emergency text messages.