Fire on the Mountain: Towns County Wildfire Community Preparedness Day

Authors: Frank Riley Jr. Chestatee/chattahoochee RC&D Council

March and April are the spring wildfire months here in the north Georgia mountains. The wildfire that we will have one day might not be as spectacular as the massive fires out West, but if just one house burns because of a wildfire it is a tragedy just the same. Wildfire education is a never-ending, year-round process and our team works on it at every opportunity. Wildfire education is like riding a bicycle: if you stop pedaling you will slow to a stop and fall off, so we have to keep pedaling slowly and steadily to keep wildfire education on our residents’ minds.

On May 2 communities all across the U.S. participated in the National Fire Protection Association’s second National Wildfire Community Preparedness Day. Citizens all across the country committed their time to positively contribute to reducing their communities’ wildfire risk. These efforts raised wildfire awareness, promoted collaboration and brought neighbors together to work on projects that help prepare their homes, neighborhoods and entire communities for wildfires.

We do things in a big way here in Towns County, so this year on May 2 our Fire Rescue Department along with the USDA Forest Service, Georgia Forestry Commission, Towns County EMA, Towns County Sheriff’s Department, Towns County Red Cross, Towns County 911, Towns County Commissioner’s office, Towns County EMS, local HAM radio, Clay County NC Fire and the Chest/Chatt RC&D Council held a full-scale wildfire training exercise in the Lake Forest Estates subdivision on Ramey Mountain. Lake Forest is one of our Firewise Communities and it is situated on very steep ground with narrow roads and only one entrance. The exercise was directed by professional coaches and evaluators who have experience in real wildfire events.

This event did not just happen overnight, but was carefully planned by representatives from the emergency agencies over eight months. The first meeting gauged whether there was interest to pursue the training exercise. Over the next few months more meetings were held to iron out details of the plan, and on March 12 the group conducted a sand table exercise.

The primary goal of the exercise was to test the multi-agency Incident Command System and have all of the emergency agencies that serve this area work together on one incident to plan and control simulated structure fires and a wildfire. Another objective was to raise public awareness.

The day started at 7:30 at the Towns County 911 center with a briefing. The actual scenario was kept under wraps until Saturday so the emergency responders would face the uncertainty that they face on any fire. They were able to put their training to the test in a simulated situation instead having to contend with the confusion, smoke, fire and panicked residents that accompany the real thing.

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Images from the Towns County National Wildfire Preparedness Day.  Photo Credits: All photos by Frank Riley except top left photo by Ken Matsen.

At 10:00 the call was made to the 911 center for a house fire at 957 Ramey Mountain Road and the exercise was put in motion. When the firefighters arrived the coach handed the Incident Commander the scenario sheet and the IC proceeded to organize his troops as they arrived on the scene. From the initial “fire,” ember showers began raining on houses above and wildfires began moving rapidly up the ridge, endangering more structures. Engines were repositioned to set up a defense for the homes in danger. Residents of the neighborhood were enlisted as role players with one playing a heart attack victim and others residents who needed to be evacuated. The EMS transported the heart attack victim to the emergency room and also had to deal with a firefighter down with heat exhaustion, and firefighters who were bitten by a dog. When the house fire turned into a wildfire, the incident commander called in additional resources from the Forest Service for wildfire control on Forest Service lands above, and Georgia Forestry Commission for wildfire control in the neighborhood. Then the Forest Service dispatched a helicopter for a real-time look at the fire’s progression.

The exercise was called off promptly at noon, and participants were invited to the after-action review and BBQ dinner at Lake Chatuge. There were 63 participants, coaches, evaluators and residents. Most comments were very positive, with radio communication among the agencies identified as one of the main weaknesses. Questions still exist on how to address this issue. Everyone agreed that the establishment of a unified command that is physically co-located is one of the first steps for an incident such as this.

We also received positive feedback from the residents who observed and participated in the incident. More exercises such as this will be planned in the future to improve our unified response to wildfires that threaten our residents and community.

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