Oregon misstated evacuation figures in chaos of wildfires

SALEM, Ore. -- As wildfires raged across Oregon, state officials sent out a statement saying 500,000 people had been evacuated to escape encroaching flames.

The figure referenced in the Sept. 10 news release from the Oregon Office of Emergency Management was striking – representing more than 10% of Oregon’s population. The Associated Press and other national media outlets reported the number.

But the figure was wrong – and by the next day the state had issued a clarification. The half-million figure represented the number of people under some level of evacuation notice, not the number of people who had actually fled their homes.

There are three levels of evacuation orders. Level 1 means people should be ready to evacuate if needed. Level 2 means they should be prepared and set to leave at a moment’s notice, and Level 3 means go now because danger is imminent.

In its statement Sept. 11 clarifying the number of people who had actually evacuated, the Office of Emergency Management noted the actual figure was about 40,000 evacuees.

The Oregonian/OregonLive published a story early Sept. 11, questioning the 500,00 evacuated figure, before state officials had backed off from it. The Portland, Oregon, newspaper said its own analysis showed the actual number of people under mandatory evacuation order was in the tens of thousands, not a half-million.

The Oregonian contacted The Associated Press about its reporting showing the lower figure. The AP contacted state officials, who initially stood by the figure of 500,000 having been evacuated. A spokesperson said the number was determined by looking at how many people live in mandatory evacuation zones.

However by the afternoon of Sept. 11, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said more than 40,000 had been evacuated and state emergency management officials acknowledged the higher figure was for others under non-mandatory —- or get ready — orders. The AP updated its stories with the new figures and explained that authorities had revised their estimates.

In its news release updating the figures, the state Office of Emergency Management cited the “rapidly changing situation,” as deadly wildfires burned more than 1,400 square miles (3,620 square kilometers) and destroyed hundreds of homes.

Bobbi Doan, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, said Monday part of the challenge in reporting the number of people evacuated was verifying whether or not people actually left their homes. Such numbers are gleaned in a variety of ways, from sources like the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

When it came to “500,000 people evacuated” the office said the numbers were changing so rapidly and “was referenced incorrectly.”

“The 500,000 number was representative for the number of Oregonians under an evacuation notice (Level 1, 2 and 3),” Doan said. “To clarify, our apologies for the misinformation. At the time that was the number we had, and with the speeds of the fires, speed of evacuations, counties were quickly going from Level 2 to Level 3.”

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