Photo Credit: Peg Dawson, property owner in Eagle’s Nest Township, getting ready for a chipper event. Photo by Gloria Erickson, Dovetail Partners, Inc.

Does every community need an evacuation plan? What does it take for a community to ask this question? Must there be a fire, a flood or some other disaster to trigger action? Or is common sense enough to motivate a community to create a plan before disaster strikes? In the case of Eagle’s Nest Township, near Ely, Minnesota, a number of factors helped trigger the process of creating an evacuation plan.

Factor 1: The Setting

The first factor that led to the township’s evacuation planning was its setting. Eagle’s Nest Township consists of 256 full-time residents. In the summer months, its population swells to a booming 900. The township is approximately 36 square miles of woods, lakes and nearly two dozen, mostly dead-end, roads and spur trails. What’s more, the spruce budworm, a destructive insect, has left behind acres of dead and dying trees.

A map of Eagle Nest's road and waterways. Both roads and lakes were an important consideration during the township's evacuation planning

Eagle’s Nest Township is bisected by its only highway. Most of the other roads in the township are dead ends. However, note the abundance of water bodies that offer alternative evacuation routes. Credit: Matt Goodman, St. Louis County

Factor 2: Vulnerabilities Revealed

Next came a few events that highlighted the township’s vulnerabilities. In July 2016, a severe wind storm blew down countless trees in the area. A few months later, a small structure fire threatened to block one road’s only exit route. Luckily, the fire was contained, and no residents were harmed.

Factor 3: The People

Larry McCray addressing an audience

Fire Chief of Eagle’s Nest Township, Larry McCray, outlining the evacuation planning concept at a public meeting. Credit: Jodi Summit, Timberjay Newspaper

Finally, the residents and local leaders were an important factor. The township is dominated by an aging population, and this includes people who are extremely active in making their properties more resilient to wildfire. The key leader and township supervisor is Larry Anderson. Larry and I have worked together for three years on various fire resiliency projects. There is also a Volunteer Fire Department chief, Larry McCray, who is a professional firefighter, as well as a fire science and paramedic instructor.

All of those elements — the setting, recent events and the people — led to the creation of Eagle’s Nest Committee for Emergency Preparedness (ENCEP).

How the Plan Works: Buddy Check!

ENCEP began by creating a phone tree and developing a buddy system. Each road in the township has one main contact person, a road captain, who reports directly to the fire chief. During a disaster, the road captain is in charge of making sure that all of the residents on their road (usually 10–20 people) are accounted for. Each resident has a “buddy” that they check on, and then they report back to their respective road captain. The system helps to ensure the fire chief, or whoever is in charge of the incident, knows that all people have been accounted for without a multitude of messaging back and forth.

Inventorying Our Assets and Needs

ENCEP has also created a questionnaire to generate an inventory of the township’s privately owned generators, sprinkler systems (specifically used for wildfire), boats, 4-wheelers, chain saws and other equipment. The inventory of boats is especially important because if the road is blocked, the waterways are the only way to evacuate people. The questionnaire will also identify residents that might need extra help, have pets, etc. They have sent out 500 questionnaires to area landowners and 50 percent of the recipients have already replied.

What’s Ahead

Next, ENCEP plans to identify evacuation meeting areas for people and pets. They will also identify volunteer crews to clear escape routes and have boats ready to move people if roads are impassable. Some residents have offered to house people temporarily in a disaster situation. The chief is establishing a local text messaging system for emergencies, and the township is in the process of purchasing a generator for the town hall/fire department. Once ENCEP has established their foundation, they will involve the County Emergency Management team in a live emergency drill with residents.

I’m documenting the hard work of this tiny township, in hopes of encouraging other townships in our area to follow their lead and begin evacuation planning. Larry Anderson has been working on this for 10 years. His perseverance on behalf of the safety of his township is finally coming to fruition. They have accomplished a lot. It hasn’t happened overnight, nor is the task completely finished. Evacuation planning requires a determined group of property owners, local community leaders, a committed volunteer fire department, and emergency management teams. We know that it takes a certain set of conditions for a catastrophic wildfire to occur; maybe all of the right conditions can come together to prevent catastrophes as well.

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