Simulating strategies: County preps for possible evacuation scenarios
What if the winds shifted and pushed the Williams Fork Fire toward Fraser? What if the Fraser Valley was evacuated on a weekend? What if a major wreck occurred on US Highway 40 during an evacuation?
These are just some of the questions Grand County’s Headwaters Incident Management Team evaluated on Wednesday afternoon during a preparation training for a potential evacuation due to the Williams Fork Fire.
So far, there are no evacuations in the Fraser Valley.
“We want residents to know that we’re thinking about these things and planning for them,” said Schelly Olson, public information officer for the management team.
In an effort to get an idea of how the team’s evacuation plans would work in real life, Greater Eagle Fire District Chief Doug Cupp brought a simulation table that models fire behavior, human behavior, wind, weather, topography, traffic, fuels and evacuation zones.
Cupp input information specific to the Fraser Valley and the Williams Fork Fire so that the models would be as close to accurate as possible. The data on fuels is provided by the U.S. Forest Service.
“It’s able to test what you have in place and what, in real life, could happen,” Cupp said. “The thing to keep in mind is — all models are wrong, but some are useful.”
Olson explained that with the U.S. Forest Service Type 1 Incident Command Team in charge of the fire, the Headwaters team is focusing on logistics regarding potential evacuations. The goal of the simulations was to test those plans against a variety of factors.
One model Cupp ran adjusted the winds to 40 mph from the northwest and it took a few days for the fire to reach the management action points defined by the command team as the triggers for evacuating certain parts of the Fraser Valley.
When Cupp began modeling evacuations, US Highway 40 got congested quickly. The simulation allowed incident command team members to identify important traffic control points and check those locations against potential human behavior.
“What I did build in a little bit is the chaos of people,” Cupp said. “We all know that people are going to do the damndest things.”
Noting the potential panic during an evacuation or extreme fire behavior day, the team prepared to have a designated information line to answer questions and direct people to evacuation centers.
Ultimately, after running several scenarios, Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin, member of the incident management team, said he learned a lot from the thought exercises.
“It shows that we have time to act on our plans with where our action points are,” Schroetlin said.
The Headwaters Incident Management Team was created earlier this year as part of Grand County’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and transitioned to the Williams Fork Fire when it broke out Aug. 14. It includes members from all of Grand County’s emergency response agencies.
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