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May 1, 2013
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Wildfire exercise smokes out flaws in systems

It was the kind of news no one wants to get.

A group of several dozen people had assembled in the gym at Summit Middle School Tuesday night when Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue chief Dave Parmley stepped to the podium and rattled off a series of unsettling numbers.

Three wildfires.

Five homes lost.

Reports of fatalities.

“We are very concerned about the current fire behavior and being able to get these three incidents contained before we have any other fires that may occur,” Parmley told the small crowd. “This has been very sobering today.”

The annual emergency preparedness exercise is a practice run, allowing Summit County’s emergency responders to tackle a variety of staged disasters. But this year the drill had a ring of truth to it, as the community and the state, still recovering from a series of devastating wildfires in 2012, again face a dry summer on the edge of a forest devastated by the mountain pine beetle epidemic.

Tuesday night’s community meeting was a first. The annual emergency exercise is usually designed exclusively to test and hone the response and coordination abilities of local agencies. This year, it gave the public a chance to prepare as well.

The event was successful in screening the public information process for inefficiencies. Some late arrivals to the meeting missed the community briefing held earlier on, and the Spanish translation was also a bit of a stumbling point.

“That’s the purpose of an exercise is for us to identify areas of improvement and what we think we’re doing wrong,” Summit County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Tracy LeClair said. “I think it’s hugely beneficial, even if you make mistakes. Then when it becomes a real event you’ve at least had a dry run through it at a time when lives are on the line.”

Emergency officials will debrief the exercise over the next few weeks to identify glitches in their own response procedures as well.

Approximately 30 people, including members of the public and “evacuees” who participated in the exercise attended the community meeting and subsequent preparedness fair at the middle school. When officials finished updating community members on the progress of their initial attack on the fictional fires, highway closures, evacuations and the dangers of smoke inhalations, hands went up with questions.

People wanted to know what was being done to combat the fires and the exact locations of highway closures.

Though far from the crowds that would likely pack the middle school during a real event, officials say they were pleased with the turnout.

“The fact that we had more than five people, to me shows that we reached a few people we normally wouldn’t have,” LeClair said.

After the briefing, attendees were able to stroll between stations around the gym addressing various areas of wildfire preparedness, where they could learn about defensible space, evacuation procedures, animal sheltering and CPR.

The exercise, which extended over two days wrapping up Wednesday, involved three wildfires on Ophir Mountain near St. Anthony’s Summit Medical Center, on Ptarmigan Mountain above Dillon and Ruby Ranch in Silverthorne, all threatening structures and forcing evacuations. By the evening briefing, officials said several residences in the Ruby Ranch neighborhood had been destroyed and they believed there had been fatalities.

The nature of the exercise this year gave local officials opportunities to collaborate with emergency responders outside of Summit County, including statewide incident management teams.

There were no actual fires or evacuations reported this week.


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The Summit Daily Updated May 1, 2013 07:59PM Published May 1, 2013 09:45PM Copyright 2013 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.