Examining Summit County’s evacuation plans in wake of the devastating California fires
The Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history, arrived in Paradise with nary a whisper. An official wireless emergency alert ordering evacuations was received by few, and those who did receive it were already so in the thick of the flames that the alert was more or less useless.
Many residents said they only realized a fire was near by the sound of propane tanks and trees exploding nearby. Even those who managed to pack up their cars and evacuate found themselves stymied by hours-long gridlock. Some burned to death in their cars, trapped in a tunnel of flames and terror.
With a recent report revealing that 2.9 million Coloradans reside in areas threatened by wildfire, local focus naturally turns to what contingency plans Summit County and similar mountain communities in the wildland-urban interface have planned in the event the worst-case scenario necessitates a mass evacuation.
Brian Bovaird, Summit County’s director of emergency management, is the point person for planning an evacuation and getting all the pieces in place to ensure it goes off without a hitch. Bovaird said that the county has robust, multi-tiered and often redundant system in place to ensure the county is prepared and able to carry out a timely and orderly emergency evacuation.
Bovaird broke down the county’s emergency response into three components — planning, communication and the process involved for an actual evacuation.
When it comes to planning, Bovaird said the county is ahead of the game with years of thought put into contingency plans and preparation. For wildfires, there is a Community Wildfire Protection Plan in place, which has already been put into action with wildfire mitigation projects thinning areas of concern near neighborhoods and critical thoroughfares across the county.
“People saw its effectiveness in the Buffalo Mountain Fire,” Bovaird said, referring to the fact that fuel breaks and thinning done years ago went a long way in preventing the Mesa Cortina and Wildernest neighborhoods from getting burned to the ground. “The mitigation there gave people additional time to get out of homes and evacuate. It’s why our wildfire council is so big on creating defensible space, and the success of the chipping program. It’s not a total solution, but they can be lifesavers when seconds matter.”
Bovaird compared the Camp Fire to a “freight train of fire,” saying it barreled toward the town at 80 miles per hour, using trees as the fuel to keep barreling forward. Fuel breaks provide “speed bumps” that starve the fire, slowing it down and giving people the precious time they need to get out of its way.
As far as planned evacuation routes, Summit is limited by mountainous terrain and a lack of roads out of town. The main routes for evacuation in Summit are I-70, Highway 6 running east-west from Silverthorne through Keystone and to Loveland Pass and Highway 9 that stretches north-south from I-70 down through Frisco, Breckenridge and on through Hoosier Pass.
The only real way to prevent the nightmare gridlock scenario that cost lives in Paradise is to ensure that residents get adequate time to leave town and have the proper information available to get themselves to the right route. To get that information out, Bovaird said that the county has a redundant, multi-modal communication apparatus to get people out in time.
Summit has the standard channels for spreading emergency alerts — radio, TV and reverse 911 phone calls. The county also has a wireless emergency alert system and access to FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert & Warning System which can broadcast alerts to all cellphones within certain neighborhoods or the entire county. Additionally, the county has channels on social media to distribute information, as well as a blog that will be constantly updated with timely information. If roads are impassable, the county has a number of “safe zones” designated around the county for residents to gather and wait in safety until such time the roads can be used to leave.
Finally, in the worst-case communications blackout scenario where all over-the-air communication fails to get information to residents in time, law enforcement will go out in squad cars with loudspeakers attached broadcasting evacuation orders, or even get on the ground and go door-to-door to get residents out. They would be aided by an “evacuation mapbook” developed in coordination with the county’s Geographical Information Services unit back in 2013 that sections out neighborhoods into smaller parcels, pointing out the ideal evacuation routes and amount of time needed to evacuate them.
Due to the “dynamic nature” of emergencies, Bovaird said that there can never be any static evacuation routes, and the method for people getting clear of a disaster is entirely situation-dependent. As an example, Bovaird provided a scenario where the dam at Goose Pasture Tarn near Breckenridge fails and threatens to put the entire town underwater without enough time to adequately warn residents.
“If there was a no-notice dam failure, the evacuation messaging and plan for that scenario specifically calls for people not to get into their cars, but to seek higher ground on either side of Main Street. That’s the way it works; each scenario calls for its own contingency plan.”
In Summit, the sheriff’s office would be in charge of getting on the ground to conduct the actual evacuation. From directing traffic at designated key intersections to checking and clearing homes in advance of firefighter support, law enforcement officers would be conducting the physical operations for getting people out. Every law enforcement vehicle is equipped with different colored tape to mark homes with signals to rescuers — such as to signal that the house has been evacuated, or that there are pets inside that need to be rescued by animal control.
“You wouldn’t think it, but pets and livestock are a big issue when it comes to evacuation,” Bovaird said. “Studies have shown that the No. 1 reason people don’t want to leave their homes is because they don’t want to leave pets behind.”
Bovaird said he wants residents to be assured that law enforcement and animal control will do everything they can to get pets out. But when time matters, the only thing you should be concerned about is getting as far away from the disaster as possible, and to not hamper rescue and emergency efforts through stubbornness or refusal to follow evacuation orders. It could cost lives.
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