Plans Considered For Larger Operation to Prepare For the Inevitable
More than 50 Ute Pass area residents got a first-hand experience in preparing and grappling with a real-life wildfire or catastrophic disaster in their backyard on the morning of Oct. 7, as they partook in the region’s first known community-wide evacuation exercise.
From hearing and viewing alerts on their cell phones and computers, to answering door knocks from first responders and firefighters, to getting an emergency kit and legal documents ready, to driving to the nearest shelter in a calm and collective manner, to even checking in their pets, a group of volunteer participants became a key part of the exercise. This was an annual event for the Pikes Peak Regional Office of Emergency Management (PPROEM).
At the same time, residents got to tour special exhibits and get information from a hefty lineup of 20-plus emergency groups, running the gamut from Amateur Radio specialists to wildfire and insurance experts. “I believe it went very well,” said Andrew Notbohm, director of PPROEM. “It was very successful. I just wish we could get more community involvement. The biggest challenge we have is community awareness. Exercises like this definitely help.”
He said their office handles an operation like this once a year, and they decided to do one in the lower Ute Pass (Green Mountain Falls, Chipita Park and Cascade) due to their growing fire dangers in the area. In fact, according to some reports, the Ute Pass is one of the state’s most at-risk areas for wildfires in the state, and some even proclaim it as number one.
No real snags occurred during the officials, such as traffic tie-ups, or orchestrating the details. Probably the biggest hassle involved securing a parking spot at the evacuation hub, located at the Ute Pass Elementary School.
This informed local folks and Peak Alert respondents that an evacuation exercise was taking place.
Peak Alerts is designed as the first level of defense in preparing for disasters and in notifying the public. Notbohm says the lack of residents in the county enrolled in this system is one of the biggest obstacles emergency personnel confront. He says less than 40 percent of El Paso County residents are signed up with Peak Alerts
“If we would like to achieve one thing, we want to get more people signed up with Peak Alerts,” said the PPROEM director.
A Great First Step; But Plenty of Obstacles Remain
Green Mountain Falls Mayor Todd Dixon also gave the thumbs-up to the exercise, but described it as just step one. He described the exercise as a great test for inter-agency operations and getting first-responders to deal with the public
He would like to see a larger effort undertaken, involving more residents and possible a community-wide door-knock alert. In this particular exercise, the only people contacted were those that volunteered.
“I would like to tie it in with an overall disaster plan,” said Dixon.
If a real wildfire strikes, he worries about departure exits and probable bottleneck areas.
Also, for future practice drills, Dixon would like to see more pre-event electronic signage to get more participants Several days prior to the recent exercise, electronic signs were installed, informing residents and motorists in the area about the evacuation exercise, but this occurred after registration expired.
Overall, Dixon and several other trustees who attended the evacuation briefing at Ute Pass Elementary, appeared quite satisfied with the results.
Altogether, about 55 people, partook in the exercise, according to David Husted, a spokesman for PPROEM, with nearly 30 homes targeted. He stated the exercise fulfilled all of the preliminary expectations and thanked the participants. One of the key aspects was connecting residents with key emergency organizations.
A pet shelter was even set up at the Ute Pass Elementary School for those who wanted to check in their dogs and cats. Keeping ties between residents and their pets is a big area of concern during real-life disasters.
Disaster-inflicted families often become separated from their kids and animals, a development that often causes much angst.
A number of key players in the emergency service and law enforcement arena attended the exercise, including El Paso County Sheriff Joe Roybal. Roybal described these type of exercises as vital to the community and for first-responders.
Similar sentiments were echoed by GMF Marshal Sean Goings. The marshal described the exercise as a powerful learning process and reminded residents of the dangers they face. “We have seen our past,” said Goings, in describing the impacts of the previous Waldo Canyon blaze, which forced the entire region to evacuate for close to two weeks in 2012.
And if it wasn’t for the strong work of local fire departments, and luck from Mother Nature in the wind patterns, the GMF and the Ute Pass may have encountered total devastation.
Because of events like this, fire mitigation has become a rallying cry in the community.
But local officials concede that the town won’t be able to safely mitigate its property and homes in time to defend against a horrific wildfire. Another elected leader noted that exercises like this aren’t just about wildfires, as the region can deal with floods.
Communication, especially in the area of emergency alerts, is one key obstacle. Following the exercise, a round table of first-responders and emergency personnel exchanged ideas on better ways to inform the public and improve procedures if the inevitable strikes. More details could be released within the next few months regarding the outcome of these de-briefing sessions and reviewing comments presented by event participants.