Summit officials highlight evacuation procedures at wildfire town hall
Summit County officials held a virtual town hall meeting Friday, June 25, to help community members better prepare for the possibility of a wildfire evacuation this summer.
Commissioner Josh Blanchard welcomed a panel of public safety experts to the meeting, including Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, Director of Emergency Management Brian Bovaird and Summit Fire & EMS spokesperson Steve Lipsher, to help educate residents on what to expect in the event of an evacuation.
The most important takeaway from the meeting was simple: Pay attention and respond appropriately to public messaging.
“I just can’t stress enough the preparedness level, because if we accomplish our goals of ordering an evacuation, effectively message the evacuation, then it really is up to community members to be ready to take that action that we’re asking from them at a moment’s notice,” Bovaird said.
Indeed, evacuations can happen at the drop of a hat. Lipsher recalled the 2018 Buffalo Mountain Fire that threatened the Wildernest and Mesa Cortina neighborhoods near Silverthorne, noting that there was only an 18-minute gap between the time officials issued a pre-evacuation notice and when a mandatory evacuation went into effect. With so little time to get things ready after an ignition, community members should take the time now to ensure they’re ready.
In the event that a wildfire becomes an imminent threat to a neighborhood, FitzSimons said law enforcement and other public safety partners will begin going door to door to let residents know what is happening, placing different colored flags on homes to denote whether someone has been evacuated, whether they’ve refused to evacuate, if there are pets in the house and other factors.
FitzSimons said the county has evacuation routes and map books for each subdivision in the county, complete with information about how many people might live in a certain complex or neighborhood, and how long it could take to evacuate. But he said trying to predict how community members will respond in the heat of the moment is difficult.
“We’ve got to remember that everybody is human; we’re not robots,” FitzSimons said. “People are going to behave the way they behave. When I say that, that’s the unknown factor. And so, (that’s) why it’s so important to listen to messaging and how we’re trying to safely and productively evacuate neighborhoods.”
As law enforcement works to clear any homes in immediate danger, the Emergency Management Department will launch a massive public messaging effort. Bovaird said that initial messaging will come in two primary forms: Summit County Alert, an opt-in emergency notification system that can provide alerts via text, phone or email; and the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s local alert system that sends notifications to all phones in the area, similar to an Amber Alert.
Bovaird urged all Summit County residents to sign up for SC Alert, which can be done at SummitCountyCo.gov/scalert and customized based on preference. He said the federal system can be extremely useful for visitors who aren’t familiar with the local notification system. Other messaging efforts will come largely on social media and traditional media, like the Summit Daily News and Krystal 93.
“At the onset of a fire, we will likely be doing short messaging because the need to take action is imminent in nature, so we don’t want to get caught up in a lot of detailed information,” Bovaird said. “We want to get the important information out right away. After the public protection actions are notified, then we’ll start using SC Alert to really drill down on detailed information: where the evacuation center might be, what zones are affected, who might be affected in the future.”
Messaging will include the location of an evacuation reception site, where evacuees and other community members can shelter from the weather and find answers about how long the evacuation might last, what current conditions are and what the coming days might bring. Mental health professionals will also be available during evacuations and the reentry phase to speak with residents, according to FitzSimons.
At the site, officials will also be able to provide help for individuals who left important things at home, like medications or pets. If pets are left behind, the Summit County Animal Response Team can step up to help. But that might not be necessary for the county’s most prepared residents.
“One of the things we talk about with preparedness is that scenario where you’re not home when the evacuation sounds; you’re not able to go back and retrieve anything, including pets,” Lipsher said. “… That’s one reason why we advocate, first of all, that you have your evacuation kit in your vehicle during fire season and not just inside the front door. Secondly, make friends with your neighbors. Make sure that the neighbor who works from home has a key to your place and knows to grab the dog. Having those types of networks goes a long way toward creating some security and reassurance that if that happens, we’re going to be able to get you and your pets out.”
The alerts will also, if necessary, inform the community about the location of emergency shelters, which Bovaird said are typically run by the American Red Cross and provide food and beds to evacuees.
If an evacuation is ordered, local law enforcement will set up a perimeter around the area that nobody but public safety workers can enter. Bovaird said the total closure is necessary to keep people safe from the fire in addition to ensuring nobody tries to take advantage of the evacuation by breaking into homes.
As with the Buffalo Mountain Fire, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office might decide to let some residents return to the area for a short time during periods of low fire activity to check on their homes or collect belongings. If that’s the case, residents should be sure to pack some proof of residency into their evacuation kits or make sure they have a photo of their driver’s license on their phone with the correct address. Officials noted that residents would still likely be able to return without some proof of residency, but it could take a while to verify.
While it could potentially take a while to get residents back to their homes in the event of an evacuation, officials asked that community members be patient and understand that the orders are meant for their safety. Officials also urged residents to take advantage of the county’s free wildfire mitigation programs, like the chipping program and home defensible space audits offered by both of the county’s fire districts.
“Have a preparedness kit, have a plan and know what you’re going to do when that evacuation is ordered,” Bovaird said. “Because when the sheriff orders an evacuation, he doesn’t do that lightly. There’s a whole risk analysis and equations that we factor in when an evacuation is ordered, because there’s inherent danger in an evacuation process, as well.”
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