9:34am

Tue July 3, 2012
Wildfires

Preparing For The Next Disaster: Differing Views On Evacuation Training

  • Larmier County Emergency Manager Eric Nilsson and Ron Hanavan with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office.

The enormous task of evacuating residents from natural disasters like wildfires typically falls to county officials and residents. However, that varies from county to county.

It’s been an all too familiar question over the past few weeks – what would you do if you had to evacuate? Would you be prepared to leave your home at a moment’s notice? Sergeant Ron Hanavan with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office says knowing the answer to those questions is extremely important.

He says there are roughly 300,000 people living in Douglas County, and if a disaster occurs; one percent of the population needing immediate attention from emergency personnel or emergency departments could overwhelm county resources.

Hands On, Real World Training

To help alleviate that possibility, Douglas County has created a disaster preparedness video aimed at training residents how to react during a disaster, and even held a mock evacuation day around a controlled burn to give its citizens hands on, real world training.

“There was community involvement, so the community was aware that it was actually involving them. As well as law enforcement being able to block roads and do evacuations. It was an all around training incident for everyone involved.”

However, Larimer County takes an alternative approach to preparing for evacuations. Eric Nilsson, Larimer County Emergency Manager says people up in the mountains of the county know their escape routes, and it’s up to the county to make sure procedures are in place during the emergency itself.

“Well, it’s not so much a matter of preparing everyone for an evacuation as knowing what our procedures are with our emergency phone notifications. Getting our ducks in a row as to the route we have chosen will be the most safe, and expeditious. And giving them a destination out when we make the phone call.”

Most People Up In The Mountain Know The Way In And Out

Nilsson says how a person evacuates is largely left up to the residents living in the more remote areas of the county.

“As far as practicing any evacuations, most people up in the mountain communities know the way in and way out. They have an instinctive understanding of what do. If there’s a fire in the west, they’re going to move east. So that’s not something we really need to teach them.”

Larimer County enacted its evacuation plans during the High Park Fire. And fear the Waldo Canyon Fire would spread into the southwestern part of Douglas County prompted pre-evacuation notices for some of its residents. Sergeant Ron Hanavan says Douglas County is fortunate that it has the funds available to provide training to its citizens.

“The better educated our public is, and the more prepared they are in a time of a disaster or an emergency, the more aware they can try to help us out in those type scenarios.”

Both Hanavan and Nilsson agree that wildfire education is going to play an even greater role as more and more people move into the state’s so-called Red Zones which are at the greatest risk for fire. And Nilsson says some of them may not understand that living in the mountains is quite different than living in the suburbs.

"It’s not like living in the suburbs. When you go up into the mountains, it’s not just an hour to go down the convenience store when you run out of mustard, it’s much more than that. And it doesn’t take long living up there and getting in the rhythm of things to know exactly what preparations you really need to make.” 

The Amount Of Responsibility Each Citizen Has Is Extremely Important

Hanavan says the amount of responsibility each citizen has during an emergency is extremely important, and it’s up to each person to take the necessary steps to prepare for a disaster regardless if the county provides training or not.

“Time and time again, you will hear the message of ‘I never thought it would happen here,’ or ‘I didn’t believe this could happen to us.’ And as much we don’t want anything to happen to anybody, unfortunately emergencies happen on a daily basis.  And we want people to have that situational awareness. Anything can happen anywhere at any time, and they need to be prepared for that.”

Evacuees from the High Park Fire were allowed to return to their homes over the weekend, however thousands remain evacuated in Colorado Springs.

Official there say as fire conditions improve in the coming days, more people could be granted access to their homes.