OETC Spotlight

Tech in the Time of Wildfires

How the CIOs most affected by the September wildfires are dealing with yet another 2020 disruption

The first sign came when the power started flickering on and off. The second was the smoke a few minutes later, creeping over the southern horizon. Then, two hours later, an urgent message from leadership.

“We were told by the superintendent, ‘you need to leave — things are not looking good,'” recalled Phoenix-Talent School District IT Manager Allan Quirós. “Basically, it was grab your phone, get your wallet and go home.”

It was Tuesday, Sept. 8, and Allan was at work in district offices with his team, preparing to launch distance learning the very next day. They knew that a fire had started that morning in Ashland, a few miles south, but had no idea of the devastation that laid ahead of them.

That afternoon, Allan said, instead of his usual 10-minute commute to Medford, it took 45 minutes.

“They closed 99 and I-5, so I was taking back roads — everyone was taking back roads,” he said. “It took some people hours to get home.”

That afternoon, the wildfire raged through both Phoenix and Talent, destroying thousands of buildings and in some places, leveling the towns. Allan evacuated for two days, coming home to an unscathed house but a district community with nearly unimaginable damage.

Miraculously, the school district didn’t lose any buildings, though the fire came within blocks.

That’s when Allan’s 12-hour days started. Within 48 hours, he said, he and his team, with help from Israel Mathewson at Southern Oregon ESD, had the district back up and running, using Orchard Hill Elementary School in the relatively unscathed Medford as their base of operations.

“The first thing we had to do was move equipment from the district office — computers, firewall, content filter — because we had to resume normal operations like finance and HR. Obviously, people were going to be calling the district and we had no power there.”

“Little by little, everything started coming online. By Thursday of that week, we got our network up via hotspot, and were using our cell phones for phone service. By Friday, we had basic operations, including our financial systems and SIS, up and running.”

Part of the quick turnaround, he said, was that they had opted to have their servers at SOESD, and were able to move their firewall and filter out there.

“We had to unlock a lot of things until they were useable but still secure,” he said. “That was an interesting balance to find.”

“Saving lives was more important than learning.”
— Derrick Brown, Executive Director of Technology at North Clackamas School District

Over at North Clackamas School District, Executive Director of Technology Derrick Brown, who assumed the job in July after the retirement of Tricia George, found himself with an entirely new set of problems.

As soon as they got word of the threat from the superintendent, all managers were asked to check in with their teams.

“It was like a wellness check — ‘Is anyone being evacuated? Do we have a staff for this week?'” he said. “At that point, there were no buildings or schools we were concerned about. That quickly changed by midweek.”

With a large number of staff either under evacuation or hosting evacuated family and friends, he said, they realized they couldn’t follow through with a planned Friday opening.

“Keeping staff, students and families safe became more the focus,” he said.

Despite that, they continued preparations to open, even if not on time.

“During this time, we continued to safely distribute Chromebooks and hotspots to families in need, but plans changed when air quality reached hazardous levels,” he said. “We moved from outside distribution to inside the school while social distancing; families continued to pick up equipment even as smoke and fire threatened our community.”

Soon, he said, his team began discussing every detail of how to execute on their emergency plans.

“When it got to Level Two in Milwaukie, we started doing infrastructure planning for four sites, asking ourselves when we would need to get in, what could we pull, what could we save and what we could salvage,” he said. “The focus turned to the growing threat to infrastructure, and what we could do to protect assets.”

Four buildings — three elementary schools and a middle school — at the east end of the district were in the danger zone.

While no students are in the classrooms, Derrick said, fires could destroy important equipment and threaten continuity of learning. Although the school district is redundant and backed up at Clackamas ESD, they knew that replacing equipment in the time of COVID would be difficult and slow.

A plan quickly emerged. Because they knew it could happen in the middle of the night, they opted against renting a vehicle.

“It would’ve been two guys in a truck, probably my network engineer and myself,” Derrick said. “We would’ve literally come in and ripped everything out securely, including network switches, basically everything in our data closet.”

His network engineer estimated they would need 15 hours total — the middle school would take four hours, with the elementaries taking around three hours, plus travel time.

“It was almost a fire drill, and a really good exercise for us — now, we’re beginning to look at that for all locations,” he said. “What is the most expensive item, what is the hardest to get, and what is the most critical?”

“There was absolutely zero notification that we needed to get equipment or stuff out of schools.”
— Sam Proctor, Technology Director at Santiam Canyon School District

Over at North Santiam School District, which contains the western part of Santiam Canyon as well as Stayton, Sublimity, Lyons and Mehama, Associate Superintendent/Director of Technology David Bolin reports that his job stayed much the same — though was now more urgent.

The entire district was at one point under evacuation orders, and school had to be delayed a week.

“There’s a large percentage of staff in Stayton and up in the canyon, so they didn’t have the ability to come to school,” he said.

Instead, they spent the week training the staff who weren’t displaced to be able to support their peers who couldn’t attend the training.

“We pulled together a core team to train, and they’ve stepped up and have helped teachers who were displaced by the fire get caught-up.”

Just to the east, Sam Proctor is the Technology Director at Santiam Canyon School District, whose students live in Mill City, Gates, Detroit, Idanha and the surrounding areas.

“We knew about the Opal Creek fire, but there was no alert,” Sam said. “On Labor Day, we had friends over playing cards, it was no big deal, and then a couple hours later it was Level 3, leave NOW.”

“There was absolutely zero notification that we needed to get equipment or stuff out of schools. But to be honest, we wouldn’t have thought about it, because the alert essentially said, ‘Get your family out of the area immediately.'”

The wildfire roared through the canyon, destroying hundreds of homes and buildings and leaving some of the small towns nearly leveled. It displaced a huge percentage of staff and students, though Sam’s house survived.

“It came within 200 yards of my house,” he said.

While the campus itself didn’t catch fire, all three buildings — the elementary school, junior/high school and district offices — sustained tremendous smoke damage both inside and outside.

“If you go to a desk and run your hand over it, it’s going to come off with an oily ash sort of thing,” Sam said. A recent report on KGW reports that there’s a $2.5 million cleaning bill, and the district is struggling to get insurance to pay up.

He added that the biggest losses were in staff and faculty homes.

“We had eight staff members who lost their houses, and we’d build whole home offices — keyboards, monitors, document cameras, headsets. We took a bigger loss there than with equipment on-site at the district. Luckily, we hadn’t yet handed out Chromebooks or devices to students.”

School began Sept. 30, with many students and teachers sitting on the school grounds to use the fiber-supplied WiFi, though Sam said he doesn’t yet know the full extent of the damage inside buildings.

“We could get into those new buildings and find a lot of electronics have been damaged. Our network is up, so we know no switches have failed because of ash damage. But we have a bunch of brand new projectors mounted, access points, intercoms — those are the three things I haven’t been able to check.”

“There is more of a human connection now with what we do — it has really emphasized the fact that we’re here to help people,”
— Allan Quirós, IT Manager for Phoenix-Talent School District

Despite all the hardships, all four directors report that there has been a silver lining — seeing the true value of their team, and how connected they are to the community.

Allan Quirós of Phoenix-Talent said the fire has changed him, and many throughout the district.

“There is more of a human connection now with what we do — it has really emphasized the fact that we’re here to help people,” he said. “Whereas normally there is so much division, right now the district and the community have come together, with everybody working toward the same goal. It’s great, and if I had to pick the people to work with on this, I’d choose these folks.”