Nov 01, 2016
Preparing First Responders and Residents for Wildfire in North Georgia
Authors: Frank Riley Jr.
Here in north Georgia, wildfire danger is usually highest in October and November due to low humidity and leaf fall. This is also the time that many of our part-time residents leave for warmer climates, leaving no one at home to rake leaves or remove dead tree limbs. We’ve learned that when residents see first-hand the resources and skills local first responders and partners have at their disposal during a wildfire incident, they start to gain a better understanding of their risk. So our local FAC collaborative decided to schedule our second live wildfire exercise for September 10.
We decided to conduct the exercise in Sky Lake, a gated community in White County. Sky Lake is a Firewise Community situated on steep ground with narrow roads and one main entrance. To mitigate the risks created by the natural terrain, Sky Lake has added two emergency exits with evacuation signs, and constructed turn outs on the roads for vehicles to pass. Planning the exercise took eight months and many meetings, but it was worth it.
One of the main goals of the exercise was to test the Incident Command System with all of the emergency agencies that serve this area. The participants in this exercise included the White County Fire Rescue, the USDA Forest Service, Georgia Forestry Commission, White County Emergency Management Agency, White County Sheriff’s Department, White County Red Cross, White County 911, White County Commissioner’s office, White County EMS, Georgia Department of Corrections prison fire team, citizens of Sky Lake (very important), Georgia Dept. of Homeland Security, GEMA, and the Chest/Chatt RC&D Council.
The exercise was directed and monitored by professional coaches and evaluators who have many years of experience in actual wildfire situations. Coaches guided and directed the first responders through the exercise and helped ensure safety.
The day started at 7 a.m., when the coaches, evaluators, role players and leaders of the various agencies were briefed (none of the other emergency responders were tipped off about what the scenario would be). At 10 a.m. the call was made to the White County 911 center reporting a house fire in Sky Lake, and the exercise was put in motion. When the firefighters arrived a coach handed the incident commander the scenario sheet and he proceeded to organize his people and equipment as they arrived. Following the initial “fire,” ember showers began raining on houses to the west, and “wildfire” began moving rapidly up the ridge, endangering more homes. Wildland fire trucks were repositioned to defend the homes in danger.
Several residents played different roles. One pretended to be a heart attack victim, and others were residents who required evacuation. Paramedics treated the heart attack victim as in a real situation and also had to deal with a firefighter suffering from heat exhaustion. When the house fire turned into a wildfire, the incident commander called in additional people and equipment from (1) the Forest Service to control the wildfire on adjacent federal lands, and (2) Georgia Forestry Commission for wildfire control in the neighborhood. The Forest Service dispatched a helicopter to monitor the fire’s progression. First responders worked the full two hours, handling the different scenarios presented to them, with the stress level and confusion building as in a real-life situation.
Then came an after-action review with a barbecue dinner in the Sky Lake Community Center. Participants discussed what they experienced and what they would have done differently. Radio communication among the agencies was one of the weaknesses exposed, and there are still questions about how to solve the issue. Everyone agreed that establishing an off-site unified command is one of the first steps that must be taken during an emergency such as this.
The primary goal of the exercise was to educate the public and emergency responders about what could happen in an actual wildfire event, and that was accomplished. We will plan more exercises like this in other communities to continue to raise awareness and improve agency wildfire preparedness.