Prepare for evacuations: A how-to guide
Grand County has experienced several serious wildfire outbreaks over the past two years while surrounding counties have battled major conflagrations from the Beaver Creek Fire in Jackson County to the Cold Springs Fire in Boulder County.
The simple reality: if you live in Grand County, you should be prepared for a worst-case scenario, a major wildland fire outbreak that threatens or engulfs whole subdivisions or towns. In such a scenario evacuation notices would necessarily be issued but the process can be confusing for citizens who have never been involved with or volunteered for firefighting agencies. Evacuation notices were issued in 2016 for residents of the Gorewood Estates subdivision after the outbreak of the Gore Ridge Fire.
Grand Fire Protection District Assistant Chief Schelly Olson explained how the process works.
“If a fire is threatening homes and the area needs to be evacuated the incident commander makes the call,” Olson said. “The commander then contacts the Office of Emergency Management; they issue a Code Red cell phone notification to the area.”
Fire officials use maps to draw a polygon around the area to be evacuated and all citizens within that polygon receive the Code Red alert, according to Olson. “At the same time, dispatch will be sending out a Code Red call to all the landlines in the area.”
Each real-world scenario is different and firefighters operate in dynamic environments that are continually in flux. Sometimes evacuation decisions must be made immediately. However, if fire officials have enough time they will set “decision points” for the fire’s advancement. If a fire passes a predetermined decision point, notifications will be sent to citizens informing them to prepare for potential evacuation.
Evacuation notices come in multiple stages of urgency.
The initial stage is termed the readiness level, and is an instruction to citizens to prepare for future evacuations. Citizens who evacuate at this stage often have additional time to prepare belongings before they go. The next stage is called a pre-evacuation notice, at which point fire officials strongly recommend citizens leave the area if they are able to and should not wait for additional notifications.
“Go before authorities tell you to go,” Grand Lake Fire Protection District Administrator Cheryl Dale said. “Go before the last ditch effort, which is where people die. There are times when we don’t have much lead-time. If you are uncomfortable, go.”
The final stage is the actual evacuation notice. There are no specific guidelines on when an evacuation notice is issued and such notifications are at the discretion of the fire’s incident commanders and other leaders.
Dale noted many of Grand County’s housing developments have only one access road in and out. As such, evacuation notices are often issued before a fire threatens a specific area because the fire is in danger of cutting off access to the area.
Once an evacuation notice has been issued, first responders work to ensure everyone is out of the evacuation zone. Evacuations in Grand County often include firefighters, EMS personnel and Sherriff’s deputies going door-to-door, knocking to check if anyone is still in the area.
Olson explained the urgency.
“It can reach a point on these fires where we can not go in anymore,” she said. “We have to go in afterwards.”
Once an area has been evacuated it is cordoned off and law enforcement maintains roadblocks to the area, keeping anyone from returning until the evacuation notice has been lifted.
With the reality of the fire danger in Grand County, citizens should be prepared. Local Fire Districts recommend preparing ahead of time, and not waiting until a wildfire is burning and notifications are being sent. Keep a “go bag” with basic items including water, first aid, food, batteries, radios, ready at all times. Establish a plan for your family; make sure everyone knows the plan and where to meet after any potential evacuations.
Olson suggested citizens keep important papers and other documents, like birth certificates and title paperwork, handy so they can be easily packed before evacuations. Dale noted the importance of grabbing items like medication and prescription glasses, which are often forgotten in the rush of emergencies.
“You can get tunnel vision in an emergency situation,” Dale said. “Everybody acts in different ways. That is why it is so important to think about this when you are calm.”
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