Ute Pass Region Residents Prepare for First-Ever Disaster Evacuation Drill

Oct. 7 Event Described as First Step in Grappling with the Inevitable

Rick Langenberg


Are you and your family and friends, and even your pets, ready for the inevitable, as the threats of wildfires and other natural disasters escalate for area residents? In fact, they are now knocking on your door in increasing volume.


And what can we do to get the word out to trigger more community awareness, as it’s not a matter of if, but when?


More specifically, what can we do prepare for the region’s first ever-simulated evacuation drill?


These questions and more confronted leaders of the Pikes Peak Regional Office of Emergency Management in a community meeting last week at the Ute Pass Elementary School, as they prepare residents for a major event, scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 7.  The stage is being set for getting locals trained on what to do, if a Waldo-type blaze strikes the community head-on with little time for preparation.


For example, what happens when parents are separated from their kids during a disaster, or you become separated from your pets? How do you handle your utilities, and what about the ongoing question of property recovery?


These are all part of the challenges for people who reside in what is being described as one of the most at-risk areas in the state of Colorado, if not number one, especially when it comes to wildfires.


The Oct. 7 training is touted as Round One in preparing for the inevitable.


That’s when local residents from Green Mountain Falls, Chipita Park and Cascade will get a chance to partake in a simulated practice evacuation, extending from the process of receiving emergency alerts, to hearing and answering knocks on the door from emergency  personnel, to assembling emergency kits as quickly as possible, to exiting to the nearest designated shelter. In this case, the evacuation hub will become the Ute Pass Elementary School.


If a real-life disaster occurs, residents would depart the area, as quickly as possible.  But for the Oct. 7 exercise, the Ute Pass Elementary  School will serve as a final destination. No road closures are planned for the event, but exit traffic could get heavy at times on Ute Pass Avenue, and possible sections of Hwy. 24, between 11 a.m. and noon.  And of course, don’t panic.


A follow-up discussion and lunch will occur for the participants, who also will get a chance to gain information from a spree of emergency preparedness groups and even tour mock shelters.  A free lunch is being provide to those who partake in the exercise.


The event is being orchestrated by the Pikes Peak Regional Office of Emergency Management, with the support of the town of Green Mountain Falls and surrounding communities and local fire departments. According to David Husted, a key representative and spokesman for the PPRegional Office of Emergency Management, the effort represents the first known evacuation exercise in the lower Ute Pass area.


He said their office tries to do one of these trainings  year for communities in the area. In the past, these drills have occurred in such areas as Rockrimmon, Monument and Manitou Springs.

But to date, none have occurred in the lower Ute Pass, a region now touted as a premiere fire threat.


Already, close to 50 local residents have signed up, with more volunteers expected to get involved in the next few days.


Husted, who also works with the Colorado Springs Police Department, cited a number of key goals from the exercise, such as getting residents to interact with emergency responders more and their neighbors,  enhancing community awareness regarding wildfire threats,  providing detailed information on emergency preparedness procedures and developing friendly relations with the local and regional media, who will play a vital role during real-life disaster. Media representatives from the region will be  participating in the Oct. 7 exercise, which has been noted in local  press and television reports.


Community leaders praised the effort as a good first step, but don’t want to stop with the Oct. 7 simulated exercise, which will take several hours.


“Practice makes perfect,” said Green Mountain Falls Mayor Todd Dixon, who wants the town to partake in a number of preparation drills. He also want to take a lead role in examining the issue of recovery, when a disaster strikes. “Recovery is 90 percent of the event,” said the  mayor.


“Hopefully, it will provide us a little spark for community awareness,” said GMF Trustee Nick Donzello, who wants to see a follow-up exercise down the road. He stressed the importance of this type of training, as the region, although making much progress in the area of tree  mitigation, is losing the battle to secure a safe, fire-free environment.


“It still is a disaster zone,” admitted the trustee, in describing the hazardous conditions in  GMF, which has developed way too many trees to achieve a healthy forest level. GMF, along with other communities in the area, have suffered from decades of poor forest management. This was a big factor that led to the Hayman fire in Teller and Douglas counties more than 20 years ago.


Donzello noted that this wasn’t how the landscape looked 100 years ago.


A Devastating Wildfire Can Strike Tomorrow

One fact was stressed at last week’s community meeting.


Time is on not on the side of the lower Ute Pass. Long-time GMF resident and former trustee Mac Pitrone signaled an alarm bell about the small crowd who attended the community forum.

“We are talking about a situation… of not if as when,” said Pitrone, in describing the threat of a serious wildfire striking the area.  Moreover, he is concerned with a growing number of new residents who weren’t here for the Waldon Canyon fire in 2012 and other earlier horrific blazes. “They need to realize that (a completely devastating wildfire in our backyard) is a definite possibility. This is something that can happen tomorrow.”


Pitrone noted that long-time residents have a little experience and gained some sweat equity in dealing with the threat, which hit home for many during the Waldo blaze. GMF residents were evacuated for close to two weeks because of the complete closure of Hwy. 24, and anxiously awaited daily fire updates. In the end, the GMF and Cascade areas escaped serious damage, but that wasn’t the case for some sections of Colorado Springs that encountered hundreds of scorched homes.

On the upside, Pitrone heavily praised the volunteer Green Mountain Falls/Chipita Park Fire Department as second to none. “They are as good as it gets,” said Pitrone.


A number of emergency personnel attended last week’s exercise.


Still, the lack of sign-ups for the evacuation exercise concerned other residents, besides Pitrone, at last week’s forum.


Representatives from the PPRegional Office of Emergency Management stated they plan to send out reminders on their Peak alert system to get more volunteers.


It’s still not too late to sign-up, a process that only takes a few minutes. For those interested in participating, visit the Green Mountain Falls town government website, which has a posted link regarding the forthcoming exercise.