Alerts in Spanish bigger priority for Eagle County after Lake Christine fire
Pueden encontrar la versión en español aquí.
When working in the fast-paced world of emergency management, there are many steps and processes that happen quickly to get people to safety.
With the human-caused climate crisis ongoing, disasters such as wildfires and flash floods are expected to occur more frequently.
Significant numbers of people living and working in Pitkin, Eagle, and Garfield counties speak a language other than English at home.
For example, the U.S. Census Bureau says 29% of the people in Eagle County are Latino, and 26% reported speaking a language other than English at home.
But it can be hard to find accurate Spanish-language information during an emergency as agencies approach multilingual communication differently.
The Lake Christine fire started at the Basalt shooting range, burning more than 12,000 acres in Eagle County in 2018, and got dangerously close to El Jebel and Basalt.
But cultural missteps made some evacuees wary of using the county’s services.
Emergency officials in Eagle County, only a corner of which is in the Roaring Fork Valley, have made some changes since then to try to address the mistakes.
Racquel Salgado has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley for 14 years.
Her family lives in a mobile home park near downtown Basalt, which is within a mile of where the Lake Christine fire broke out.
Salgado says she didn’t have adequate information about the progress of the fire or evacuations.
Downtown Basalt was not evacuated, but the El Jebel Mobile Home Park was, which has about 300 sites and is home to many Latino families.
Salgado says she understands some English and gets alerts from Eagle County’s dispatch center on her phone, but she adds that it’s still not enough.
Mishaps during Lake Christine fire
And during the fire, Eagle County emergency officials and responders quickly realized the difficulty of getting information to Spanish speakers.
Faviola Alderete is a community health strategist for the county’s public health department.
But during life-threatening disasters, she works with the county’s emergency management department in the role of “access and functional needs coordinator.”
“The role of access and functional needs is more of making sure that we are really sharing the message everywhere in our community, and we're not missing any gaps,” Alderete said.
Part of that job is to make sure that Spanish speakers have up-to-date information during a crisis.
She notes that the county didn’t have a system in place to respond well to the Latinx community during the Lake Christine fire, and that caused dangerous rumors to spread.
“We didn't know how to fill that need,” Alderete said. “Because even though we have a lot of bilingual, bicultural employees in the county, none one was certified as a professional translator or interpreter.”
Elizabeth Velasco, who is a certified Spanish translator, said there was a lack of cultural competency when evacuating Latino neighborhoods during the fire.
(Velasco is running for House District 57 and Aspen Public Radio has a contract with Velasco’s company for translation services).
When it was deemed safe for residents to return home, the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office issued families an official tag that gave them permission to return.
It was printed on green cardstock.
“It was a tag,” Velasco said. “It was just a little paper, a green card, but people in our immigrant community thought they were asking for the green card, which is their residence card. So that caused fear.”
And a rumor spread that the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, would be waiting for people at evacuation shelters.
Alderete said rumors like this had a ripple effect.
“That miscommunication caused so many other things in the community,” Alderete said. “It really caused a lot of fear. People didn't want to go to shelters because they didn't know what to expect in shelters.”
Alderete added that people were sleeping in the cars outside of grocery stores and other places in El Jebel.
“I was very heartbroken because we couldn't communicate very well with them,” Alderete said. “So, we could not really make sure that we take away the fear and build that trust and make everyone feel safe.”
Eagle County Sheriff James Van Beek said green cardstock was what they had available at the time.
And now that they’re aware of the confusion, he will try to avoid using that color in the future.
However, the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office translated almost every Facebook post during the Lake Christine fire starting on July 4, most of which were certified.
They also addressed the ICE rumor in Spanish on July 5, two days after the fire started.
But as Alderete noted, the fear and distrust lingered.
New hires spark changes
In her role as access and functional needs coordinator, Alderete works alongside Birch Barron, Eagle County’s emergency manager, and Fernando Almanza, Barron’s deputy.
All three are bilingual.
Barron helps to coordinate six fire chiefs, four law enforcement agencies and more to make sure all partnerships run smoothly during a crisis.
And Spanish fluency among his staff has proved to be an important asset.
“Our emergency management department does not have any fire trucks, any law enforcement vehicles or any ambulances,” Barron said. “Our function is largely a coordination function.”
Barron wasn’t around for the Lake Christine fire, but he heard a lot about it when he started.
“There was an awareness during that fire that a lot of our systems were not really built to be as accessible as they should be for the Spanish-speaking communities in El Jebel and Basalt,” Barron said.
He adds that there was already a lot of momentum in the county to improve Spanish services when he was hired in 2019.
Officials adapt strategy
By the time the Grizzly Creek fire ignited in Glenwood Canyon in 2020 and spread over the western border of Eagle County, the county’s emergency management department had a lot more Spanish-language resources.
Alderete and other staff in the county’s public health department launched the Facebook page “Mi Salud, Mi Charco” (which translates roughly to “My Health, My Backyard”) when the COVID pandemic began.
And during the fire, the Facebook page included Spanish emergency information, as did the Eagle County emergency management webpage, which has a mirror site in Spanish.
The Lake Christine fire was also a turning point for Mark Wentworth, the director of emergency communications at Vail Public Safety Communications Center, the dispatch center for Eagle County.
He uses the language-services company Cyracom to certify his bilingual dispatchers. And he’s been working on a program to pay dispatchers more money once they become certified.
Similar to Pitkin and Garfield counties, Wentworth’s dispatch center also sends out emergency alerts to its subscribers via text and email.
Most alerts are non-emergent, day-to-day alerts about road closures and other minor issues in Eagle County.
Those are only in English.
But bigger emergencies trigger a Spanish translation, which is done by one of his certified dispatchers or through Cyracom.
And Wentworth has a set of criteria for when the dispatch center sends out Spanish-language alerts.
“If there's any sort of danger to people's lives, we translate those, evacuations, hazardous materials and things like that,” he said.
For example, there were three small fires this past summer in Eagle County between Gypsum and Eagle.
One of the fires burned about 19 acres, and Eagle County sent a direct message to all Eagle County-alert subscribers in both English and Spanish.
The Spanish alert included a link to the “Eagle County PIO” Facebook page where videos describing the status of the fires were posted in both languages.
Many alerts are not delivered in Spanish, and Wentworth says their goal is always to improve and grow their Spanish-language services at the county’s dispatch center.
However, getting fully staffed is one of his biggest priorities at this time.
Wentworth reported in mid-September that he has six open positions for dispatchers and four people in training.
Barron, of Eagle County, says he wants to see online translation services such as Google Translate improve its algorithms so that language access for everyone is immediate and reliable.
“That would be the gold standard,” Barron said. “Once you put it out, everybody gets the same information at the same time and whatever language is most accessible to them. But until we get to a point where we're comfortable that those translation tools are going to be effective at giving the right message, we still have systems that are built on the need to have native speakers manually translating and interpreting whatever possible.”
Alderete is proud of the translation work they’re doing now but still recognizes there are ways she can improve accessibility during emergencies.
“Probably next time, I'll just have to make sure that we have other communications in other languages, not just only in English and Spanish,” Alderete said. “Also, we can communicate with people that have other needs, special needs.”
Barron recognizes that language accessibility can be a matter of life and death, and there are people in Eagle County who are not going to be comfortable with the English language.
“We know that when we're talking about things as emotional as an emergency response, speaking in somebody's native language is incredibly important,” Barron said. “And we also know that people who don't have access to information in a way that's accessible to them will be disproportionately impacted by whatever emergency occurs.”
At this time, it remains up to each emergency agency to independently decide who gets the reliable and trustworthy crisis information, leaving a Spanish speaker’s emergency awareness dependent on their address.
This is the third story of a three-part series on Spanish-language emergency alerts in the three counties that make up the Roaring Fork Valley: Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield.