A Community Evolution: Evacuation Drill in Loma Linda
Authors: Bill Trimarco
It’s not too often that members of a homeowner’s association can get together without finding some differences to argue about, but the first weekend in October, 2015, saw the residents of one southwestern Colorado community put aside their differences and gather together in support of a common goal. The homeowners in the Loma Linda subdivision outside of Pagosa Springs participated in a mock wildfire evacuation.
Peggy Beach, a volunteer neighborhood ambassador with FireWise of Southwest Colorado, contacted the local fire district wildland coordinator, John Gilbert, and proposed the fire drill idea to him. John jumped at the opportunity. The Pagosa Fire Protection District is made up of 7 paid firefighters and roughly 60 volunteers. They serve a large rural area of close to 10,000 residents. This would be a great training exercise for them. The Archuleta County Sheriff’s Department and Emergency Management crew were eager participants. The Colorado State Patrol and Department of Transportation prepared for traffic control and placed warning signs along the highway that would be used as an evacuation route. Volunteers and food donations were lined up at the nearest fire station, which would become an evacuation center.
In the weeks preceding the event, Peggy posted announcements through the Homeowner’s Association website and bulletin board. John Gilbert worked up a wildfire scenario that was so realistic it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I read it. It described the progress of a fast-moving wildfire heading toward, and then through, the subdivision. At various points in the scenario, air support would be called in for retardant drops, some of which were called off due to thick smoke. The subdivision would be evacuated in stages as the fire progressed. Residents were told in advance that since this was just a drill, they did not have to actually move their livestock, but were encouraged to make sure they had the ability to do so in a real situation.
When the long awaited day finally arrived, everything was ready. At 9:00 am, the reverse 911 system was activated and the announcement went out to everyone in the area that the drill had commenced. Radios came alive as lookouts were posted to monitor the fire. As it approached the subdivision, the call went out to begin the evacuation of homes nearest the blaze. Sheriff’s deputies and firefighters began knocking on doors and telling the occupants that a wildfire drill was in process, and it was time to evacuate if they chose to participate in the drill. Section by section, the community was evacuated and residents drove to Fire Station 3, about 2 miles from the subdivision entrance. Once there, they were checked in by the volunteers and offered snacks and water. EMS personnel were on hand and passed out medical alert packs that folks could fill out and place on their refrigerators in case they ever needed assistance from the responders.
In all, about 20 homes out of the 40 or so full-time residences chose to evacuate. Many of the others supported the concept, but due to time constraints, chose not to actually leave. Shortly after 11:00 am, the fire was reported to be under control and everyone was told they could return home. There was a lot of talk among the evacuees about the event. Everyone was in agreement that this exercise really opened their eyes to what could happen if fire approached the community. There were many discussions about how they planned to deal with to-go bags, valuables, medications and the myriad details that pop up when you only have minutes to leave your home. Many gained a new-found respect for their local volunteer firefighters and what they contribute to the community.
The firefighters appeared to be having a good time as they ran through their assigned duties. During lulls in the action, I heard a lot of discussions about what homes they could defend and which ones were potentially threats to firefighters’ lives due to terrain and vegetation. Both deputies and firefighters gained first-hand experience of the pitfalls of long driveways with encroaching fuels and overhanging tree limbs. The homeowners of those lots heard the responders’ concerns of safe access first-hand. All in all, this drill was a resounding success as a training exercise for multiple local agencies, and it will continue to be of use as the lessons learned are reviewed in the coming months. One of the firefighters summed it up when he said, “This is some of the best training I’ve ever had!” The only complaint, “Where’s my real helicopter?”
This is really a milestone event for Loma Linda. A little over a decade ago, when a local Forest Service fuels specialist was invited by the homeowner’s association to discuss the need to mitigate in this subdivision bordering National Forest, he was shouted down by residents and told it was their right to have trees growing through their decks if they felt like it. Things have changed since then. Over the last three years, that same subdivision has contributed $10,000 to match a state grant for mitigation work on a shaded fuel break, installed reflective number signs without charge for all residents who wish them, held chipping day events, obtained Firewise Community/USA recognition status, and is awaiting final approval of their Community Wildfire Protection Plan. How did such a change take place? It took a couple of large wildfires relatively close by, one very persistent volunteer in the neighborhood (thanks for being a spark plug, Peggy) and a community coming together.