Months of preparing for June exercise helped Summit County fight Buffalo Mountain Fire | SummitDaily.com

Months of preparing for June exercise helped Summit County fight Buffalo Mountain Fire

June 21 had a big red circle around it on Summit County's calendar for about six months.

Brian Bovaird, director of Summit County's Office of Emergency Management, was hired back in January. One of the first action items he planned was a full-scale wildfire training exercise in Silverthorne for June.

Bovaird had never managed a wildfire before. It was important to him to make sure he and the rest of the county emergency response machine were prepped and well-oiled heading into wildfire season.

The exercise, now canceled because of the actual fire last week, would have seen most local emergency agencies deployed to run through a wildfire scenario to practice and test the county's coordination and response. It would test the county's response times, coordination, communication, logistics and fitness to deal with a wildfire near a dense residential subdivision.

The subdivision in the scenario happened to be the Mesa Cortina neighborhood, and the mock fire was supposed to start about 100 yards from the exact spot where last week's Buffalo Mountain Fire broke out. The eerie similarities don't end there.

"The way we mapped it out time-wise, it also broke out about eight minutes off from how when we planned to start running the scenario," Bovaird said. "We planned to start the scenario at 11 a.m. and it actually started at 10:52 a.m. The timing of our actual response was also pretty much in line with how it was sketched out."

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Summit Fire and EMS Chief Jeff Berino said he'd never experienced such a weird coincidence play out in his 38 years of firefighting.

"We've had instances where an actual emergency was similar to mock ones, but nothing that similar in terms of proximity and timing," Berino said. "That exact neighborhood — Mesa Cortina — we were supposed to simulate evacuating today, and we wound up having to actually do it a week early."

The six months preparing for the scenario turned out to be incredibly useful for the real fire last week.

For example, months ago Bovaird anticipated the need for efficient messaging between the Emergency Operations Center, where the emergency response is coordinated; the Joint Information Center, which relays timely information to the public; and 911 dispatch, which would handle calls for help from the public and dispatch emergency assets. Communication networks and plans were drawn up accordingly.

Those plans worked out beautifully during the big, bad live show last week.

"By getting those pieces working together ahead of time, the fire response went a lot smoother," Bovaird said, adding that without the preparation, the response might have been a lot rockier.

"It definitely would have caused more confusion to the public, because they wouldn't have had that timely, efficient information they needed to get out safely," Bovaird said. "If we didn't plan to have Emergency Ops take over public messaging and take the load off 911, it could have hindered 911 dispatch's ability to take calls or deploy assets to where they needed to be."

From the firefighting end, Berino said that the tabletop planning for a fire in Mesa Cortina certainly came to life last week.

"The tabletop got us in the mindset of how to address a fire near those subdivisions, and increased our awareness of tactical challenges in that area," Berino said. "We've known about what we needed to do to keep that area safe."

Berino gave two key examples of how that wound up working in practice.

"I knew that we'd need a big air show," Berino said. "We just don't have enough boots on the ground or resources in the county to have made it up there and respond effectively and in time, so calling in air support early was critical."

Sure enough, Berino called in a rapid, overwhelming air response, and it was an essential reason why flames didn't touch any buildings or people.

Berino also said that fire teams studied access routes in Mesa Cortina during the tabletop. By doing so, they were able to anticipate the need to turn one of the roads into an evacuation route, with another used exclusively for emergency assets getting to the fire.

Again, the routes drawn on maps back in May became the actual evacuation routes used during the fire, with emergency responders using Royal Buffalo Drive to get to the fire while evacuees used the Wildernest and Ryan Gulch roads to get out.

"The preparation really paid off," Berino concluded.

When Bovaird was asked about what it was like to deal with his first wildfire in this manner, so similar to what he envisioned, he said that "surreal" was a good word to use.

"It was pretty surreal, and pretty humbling too," Bovaird said. "A wildfire is so different from everything else, from all the coordination and pre-existing arrangements and different interagency activities. It was humbling to experience and learn from."

Bovaird said that the fact that no structures were destroyed and no injuries reported was a big win for the county's emergency response team, but that the Summit is definitely not resting on any supposed laurels.

"It's a huge testament to the system we already have in place," he said. "Even though things went well, we are certainly going to take a deep dive studying our actions and where we can improve. That will be an important part of the process going forward."

The county is expected to analyze the emergency response and present an after-action report on the fire in early August.