Summit County’s two-day wildfire scenario and practice for local first responders ended Saturday with a mock community briefing.
County government and public information officials briefed a group of about 70 people outside Summit High School, which could be used a shelter in real emergency situations. They informed the crowd of mainly first responders about the pretend disaster, gave more details about what would happen if it were real and emphasized the importance of dress rehearsals to prepare for emergencies.
“If we don’t, then we may have chaos when the real thing happens,” said County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier. “We are ready.”
Joel Cochran, the county’s emergency management director, said more than 200 people and about 40 agencies, organizations and nonprofits participated in the exercise, designed to test real-time response and coordination, Friday, May 30, and Saturday, May 31, including the Summit County Office of Emergency Management, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office and the town of Breckenridge.
“We have to work collectively to have any large impact on an emergency event,” he said, adding that the test went well. After more than 30 years in Summit he may be biased, he said, but “this community pulls together like no place on Earth.”
He said the event was a good opportunity for responders to meet the people they would work with in an emergency situation and better understand the different roles of each agency.
The county stages an emergency scenario every year, Cochran said. Past years have tested those who would be involved with ski lift accidents, school violence incidents and food contamination outbreaks.
Friday’s rain lessened the effect of smoke created for the wildfire test, but agencies still responded to a fake fire in the Red Tail Ranch area of the Upper Blue River Basin.
Cochran said those in charge of giving weather updates created a more aggressive fire than originally planned, threatening Breckenridge residents around Peak 7 faster than scheduled. Public information officers rushed their initial evacuation messages and forgot to include the word “exercise.”
Organizers of the exercise also staged a multiple-vehicle accident with numerous injuries and some deaths to push responders to constantly reevaluate their priorities.
Doug Cupp, division chief of the Summit Fire Authority, said responders did well figuring out how many people to send where and how to allocate resources.
Communication is something the agencies are always trying to improve, he said, especially when they use different terminology and mountainous terrain can block radio signals.
Responders had to quell rumors, like “I heard the hospital is closed,” and figure out what to tell actors asking, “Can I come to the shelter at the school if I have marijuana?” all while handling real calls coming in Friday and Saturday.
First responders also sent out test alert messages and went door to door around Peak 7 notifying residents about evacuation procedures.
Cupp said some people were happy to participate in the mock evacuation.
“People were really excited about learning about the best way they could leave,” he said, and “the best way they could prepare themselves.”
Lake Dillon Fire Rescue deputy chief Jeff Berino said the whole scenario would have cost about $270,000 to suppress if it were real.
In June, a series of more localized fire drills will test responders and residents.