Oregon initially said 500,000 people had been evacuated because of wildfires. The numbers didn’t add up — and the state backtracked.

Oregon initially said 500,000 people had been evacuated because of wildfires. The numbers didn’t add up — and the state backtracked.

The number of Oregonians told to evacuate because of unprecedented wildfires is more than 40,000 – not the 500,000 residents initially and erroneously announced by Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management, Gov. Kate Brown acknowledged Friday following publication of an analysis by The Oregonian/OregonLive showing the true number of evacuations to be far lower. The state

The number of Oregonians told to evacuate because of unprecedented wildfires is more than 40,000 – not the 500,000 residents initially and erroneously announced by Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management, Gov. Kate Brown acknowledged Friday following publication of an analysis by The Oregonian/OregonLive showing the true number of evacuations to be far lower.

The state in a news release Thursday night said an “estimated 500,000 Oregonians have been evacuated and that number continues to grow.”

That would be an astounding number, exceeding 10% of the state’s 4.2 million population. It’s so large, in fact, that it would be the equivalent of every single person living in Gresham, Hillsboro, Beaverton, Tigard, Lake Oswego, Oregon City, Tualatin and West Linn.

But a newsroom analysis found far fewer people actually live in the Level 3 evacuation zones identified in state mapping for mandatory evacuations.

The newsroom estimated only about 95,000 people live in zones where residents are supposed to evacuate. Even under the most conservative estimates, the number appeared to be no higher than 200,000.

State officials on Friday initially defended their estimates, saying they were based on Level 3 areas.

“It’s certainly not under 100,000,” said Lauren Wirtis, a spokeswoman for the state’s Joint Information Center. “Five-hundred-thousand is the estimate we have based on the population density we have in those areas.”

Wirtis said she could not immediately provide more details about the state’s methodology used to calculate the estimate, adding that “’population density’ is the most specific I can be right now.”

Wirtis said the state would consider a request from the newsroom to provide the underlying calculations.

“This is an incredibly tragic situation and I don’t want us to get so lost in the detail of the exact number that we forget that these are people who don’t have homes anymore,” Wirtis said.

But Oregon’s governor on Friday afternoon clarified that only about 40,000 Oregonians had been evacuated, with 500,000 total under some sort of notice to evacuate or to prepare for evacuation.

“More than 40,000 Oregonians have been evacuated,” Brown said during a news conference. “And approximately 500,000 Oregonians are currently in evacuation zones – that means 500,000 people are either at a Level 1, 2 or 3 evacuation alert.”

Andrew Phelps, director of Oregon’s Office of Management, seemed to acknowledge the glaring mistake Friday.

“I also understand how important these numbers are to the public,” he said during a news conference. “We’ve got a lot of numbers associated with this disaster, and we’re committed to getting these numbers right. And we’re going to be working to ensure that every time we release numbers, those numbers are factual and confirmed.”

The state’s erroneous evacuation estimate had been plastered across national media Friday morning. An online headline in the Washington Post declared: “Half a million Oregonians, more than 10 percent of the state’s population, have evacuated from wildfires.” The headline topping The New York Times’ website read: “Oregon Orders 500,000 to Evacuate as Fires Near Portland Suburbs.”

Wildfires in Oregon

The New York Times relied on information from the state of Oregon about how many people are under wildfire evacuation orders.

But that number was quickly debunked by The Oregonian/OregonLive.

To calculate estimated evacuees, the newsroom’s analysis overlapped Oregon’s evacuation mapping as of Thursday night with Census block group data from the most recent American Community Survey, with five-year figures from 2014-2018.

The newsroom’s analysis assumed an even distribution of population across each block group – an unlikely scenario but one that nonetheless was applied because a more precise measure was not available.

The newsroom found only about 95,000 people live in Level 3 evacuation zones identified in state mapping, where residents are instructed to “Go.” Level 3 is the only zone under a mandatory evacuation order.

Among those were an estimated 50,162 residents in Clackamas County; 19,340 residents in Jackson County; 8,311 residents in Lane County; 5,743 residents in Marion County; 4,802 residents in Linn County; 3,760 residents in Lincoln County; 1,021 residents in Josephine County; 645 residents in Douglas County; 249 residents in Klamath County; 239 residents in Yamhill County; 196 residents in Washington County; 31 residents in Jefferson County; and 1 resident in Wasco County.

Meanwhile, the newsroom estimated some 160,000 Oregonians live in identified Level 2 areas, where residents are instructed to “Be Set” to evacuate. An additional 290,000 Oregonians reside in identified Level 1 areas, where people are told to “Be Ready” to evacuate.

To be conservative, The Oregonian/OregonLive added up the total population of every block group that’s even partly in Level 3, no matter how small a slice.

It still only totaled 192,000 people.

Wirtis said the state is working with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency and local counties to update its evacuation estimates. The numbers are constantly in flux, she said.

At one point Thursday, officials told Oregon’s governor that evacuation numbers stood in the 30,000 to 40,000 range, Wirtis said. But by the time Brown tweeted a figure at 3:22 p.m., the governor said, “More than 80,000 Oregonians have evacuated so far, with evacuations ongoing.”

“Those numbers, they will change,” Wirtis said. “Truly the moment you say them, they’re no longer accurate.”

The state’s news release suggesting an “estimated 500,000 Oregonians have been evacuated” was sent out less than two hours later, at 5:06 p.m. Thursday.

Wirtis emphasized Friday the state wants to ensure it provides accurate information but is focused on protecting residents from what was estimated as 900,000 acres of wildfire across the state.

“Counting people,” she said, “is less important than making sure they stay alive.”

— Brad Schmidt and Mark Friesen; bschmidt@oregonian.com; 503-294-7628; @_brad_schmidt

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