Several considerations help shape wildfire evacuation plans
Wayne Cook has handled lots of wildfire-caused evacuations, but a scene from two summers ago stands out.
He was incident commander on a fire near Hamilton, Mont., and a few people in a rural area refused to leave their homes after an evacuation order. He said some of the residents didn’t think the fire would reach them, while others wanted to stay and defend their homes.
Sure enough, as the fire charged closer to the occupied homes, the panicked residents started running or driving away with their backs to the flames. As they raced passed Cook and his team, they shouted “We should have listened to you.”
“They were running for their lives, when they could have been safe,” said Cook, who is incident commander on the Coal Seam Fire.
Cook said incident commanders work with local and government officials to determine whether an evacuation is necessary, and it’s up to the sheriff’s department to enforce the order. An evacuation plan usually has three phrases: a warning, a pre-evacuation notice, and the evacuation itself. If a fire blows up, the plan can jump straight from a warning to an evacuation.
Trigger points may be established between the fireline and an area of concern to assist in determining when an evacuation should be ordered. If a fire reaches these locations, residents would have two hours to pack up before leaving. The actual location is determined by several factors and can change from day to day.
One consideration is the type of fuels in and around the area of concern. Another consideration might be incoming weather that might produce high winds that could whip a fire.
“Some of the stuff is subjective,” Cook said.
Access to an area of concern is an important consideration, Cook said. For example, an area with only one way in and one way out might be evacuated before an area with several exit points. Access to water is another consideration.
Before an evacuation is ordered, incident commanders often hold community meetings to explain the plan. At those meetings, it’s sometimes explained that emergency responders might have to risk their lives to save residents who didn’t evacuate or who return to their homes.
Cook said “98 percent” of the people targeted for evacuation will cooperate, but there are often a few who won’t.
Garfield County Sheriff Tom Dalessandri said evacuees have said they are willing to risk their lives to retrieve their pets. “People can put themselves in harms way, but that puts rescuers in harms way as well,” Dalessandri said.
Dalessandri said ideally, his office would have several hours to evacuate an area. The lead time can be needed so that residents can move their livestock. In the Four Mile evacuation, several hours were required to move residents in a nursing home.
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